CLEARWATER — Las Vegas illusionist Criss Angel pulled off an elaborate escape from a beach hotel moments before its demolition Wednesday night, first scaring, and then pleasing, tens of thousands of fans on hand.
The stunt, televised live internationally, began with Angel shackled to the sixth floor balcony of the nine-story Spyglass Resort. It ended more than four minutes later with Angel emerging, looking dazed, from the rubble that had been the hotel.
Angel had been expected to escape via a ladder dangling from a helicopter that hovered over the hotel's roof until 30 seconds before the demolition.
"I had a contingency, I'm not a fool," Angel, 40, told reporters shortly after the stunt. He refused to say if the outcome was the original plan all along. "I'm very methodical in what I do."
As time ran out, the broadcast of Mindfreak, Angel's show on A&E Network, showed him struggling to pick a final fifth lock on the roof door. The screen then went to static until it cut to an external view of the hotel, known for its kitschy 100-foot mural of a hot air balloon. The hotel crumbled, unleashing 4,500 tons of rubble and sending dust through a crowd police estimated at about 50,000.
Many had braved a day of rainy weather to score prime viewing spots for the magician's self-described "biggest and baddest" escape.
Savannah Fancher, 13, of Largo admitted she cried hysterically until she saw the magician emerge from the rubble. "I didn't think he made it out," Fancher said. "I can't stop shaking."
Some witnesses surmised Angel used taped video to make it look as if he was stuck in the building while he was actually making his descent to safety.
But the show's host, Tim Vincent, said afterward, "We did 48 hours of rehearsal, and I can tell you this isn't how we planned it."
But when pressed, Angel smiled wryly and offered, "I flipped it on you, didn't I? I thought (through it) pretty well."
Angel's actual stunt came at the end of the hourlong broadcast, which was also shown on a 9- by 12-foot screen on the beach. During the show, Angel explained disposable video cameras had been tucked inside the motel earlier in the week to allow viewers to witness the elaborate escape step-by-step.
On the show, he ran through the stunt for viewers.
For roughly the first minute of his stunt, Angel was viewable to the crowd on the beach, which spread northeast and southeast from the hotel. He picked the Smith & Wesson handcuffs retired Clearwater police Lt. David Hardman had used to shackle him to the balcony railing.
He then attempted to pick the padlock on the balcony door, but when he failed, he kicked in a window and jumped into the hotel room.
From that point forward, witnesses could only rely on the video image to verify that Angel was actually completing his escape in the manner described. It showed him picking the padlock on the hotel room's internal door, then one on a door to the stairs.
Angel, who once disappeared in front of a raging Mexican bull, said he needed to be on the roof of the hotel with 30 seconds to spare so a helicopter could lift him to 1,000 feet above the implosion.
But as a 4-minute timer on the TV screen ticked to zero, Angel was shown on the screen unable to finesse the final lock on the roof hatch-style door. The screen went fuzzy. The hotel crumpled to the ground under the power of 450 sticks of dynamite.
"I started tearing up a little bit. I've been a follower for a long time. I don't know how he made it out alive," an incredulous Brittany Johnson, 18 of Palm Harbor said moments later. She sported a black shirt like the magician, "Angel" tattooed on her left forearm with a magic marker. "I've never seen a building fall let alone with someone I care about."
Angel repeated Wednesday night that the Harry Houdini-style stunt would be his last dangerous one, in deference to his mother. He said he didn't want her to worry anymore.
For many of Angel's loyal TV fans — who have seen him set himself on fire, levitate above the Luxor in Las Vegas and float between two buildings — the night did not disappoint.
"That was awesome," said Isaac Netzer, 12, of Tampa.
Excitement built all day, despite the constant threat of rain. Organizers warned the stunt could be canceled if lightning was spotted within two miles of the demolition site; and some fans found they had to move their cars due to parking confusion.
But Angel made just enough appearances to stoke the anticipation. He had breakfast at the restaurant at the Sandpearl Resort, where he and his entourage and family stayed.
About 7 p.m., he rode a cherry-picker up to the hotel's balcony while A&E cameras rolled.
By 9:30 p.m. the crowd was raucous. Latin and rap music played, fake smoke poured from behind the vacant hotel, and Pier 60 was packed. Some 50 boats anchored 500 feet off shore.
The night came roughly a month after Angel convinced developers, detonators and city officials that he could safely pull off his escape despite dynamite on the first, second and fourth floors.
City officials said they purposely had not asked for information about his strategy because any revelation would have been subject to public records laws.
The hotel was demolished to make way for a mega resort that will take up much of the area between S Gulfview Boulevard and Coronado Drive.