Balloons have been a staple in just about every celebration from birthday parties to weddings and even major city events. In fact, balloons were the main theme of an event that happened in 1986 in Cleveland, Ohio. In September 27 of that year, millions of balloons were released into the sky. But officials never predicted the horrible consequences of their actions.
Over a Million Balloons Were Released
In September 1986, a large crowd formed in Cleveland, Ohio to witness a spectacular sight. It was intended to be a major event as approximately 1.5 million multi-colored helium balloons were scheduled to be released into the air. But spectators had no idea that this moment would lead to some serious consequences.
Before the Fall
The event was called Balloonfest ‘86 and it was being held by the United Way of America to raise extra cash for charity and to promote their work as do-gooders in the area. The idea was also to pull off this balloon event and break a world record that would have everyone talking.
The Event Took Several Months to Plan
Over a period of several months, Balloonart by Treb, a Los Angeles based company, figured out how to top the previous world record holders by building a large structure that would house over a million helium balloons in Cleveland’s Public Square.
Volunteers Worked Hard to Make This All Happen
On September 26, 1986, approximately 2,500 volunteers started pumping the balloons full of helium and prepping them to be held in a large net that was strung on the top of a 200x150-foot box structure. This would temporarily house the balloons. But many felt like the work was insane.
It Was a Tough Job
Despite being told that this would make them famous around the world, volunteers like Mandy Basel told Cleveland.com in 2011 that the work was taxing. “It was like an assembly line, non-stop. I was a tier. I was not a very good tier before the event, but after a while, I could do it with my eyes closed. It didn’t take long to get good at it. And fast – 20 seconds a balloon,” she explained.
There Were a Lot of Sore Fingers
Basel never wrote on her journal about the long hours she worked to get Balloonfest set and ready to go. She never even watched the launch. She later explained in the interview that her apprehension towards the event may be the result of her sore fingers ending up bandaged. But the pain she experienced alongside her fellow volunteers was nothing compared to what the city and the United Way were destined to feel for themselves.
They Wanted to Break a World Record
They intended to break the record for most balloons launched, and everything went without a hitch at the Public Square in Cleveland. So, at approximately, 1:50 p.m. in September 27, the volunteers lifted the mesh layer holding the balloons and set them free on the atmosphere. But they had no idea what they had unleashed on the city.
They Had Been Warned
That afternoon, the weather forecast had indicated that a terrible storm was coming. So, the United Way organizers asked the volunteers to stop when they reached 1.5 million balloons. They assumed that this was more than enough to break the record. And then disaster struck.
Everything Seemed to Be Going Okay
The balloons rose up over the Terminal Tower, a skyscraper in Public Square, while spectators watched from below and hoped that the colors would dampen the otherwise dullish gray sky and approaching storm. Then, in a shocking twist, a day of hope turned into darkness.
The Storm Ruined Everything
A freak storm blanketed Public Square with rain and wind. This forced the 1.5 million balloons back down. But the fallen balloons were more than just a nuisance. They led to a nightmare that has continued to haunt the city for over 30 years.
There Were Balloons Everywhere
Layers of balloons landed everywhere—on the streets and on the water. Neither the United Way or Cleveland city officials could have predicted that this was going to happen, but it had, and what was supposed to be a good thing turned into a very bad thing.
The United Way Got Sued
Although the United Way had nothing but the best intentions, their plan to break a world record and raise money for charity had failed. And to add insult to injury, they got sued several times for this major stunt gone wrong.
They Wanted to Raise Their Profile
The United Way argued that they only wanted to raise awareness for their mission statement. They felt that one of the best ways to do that was to beat Disneyland’s record balloon launch which had successfully occurred a year earlier. But things simply went awry.
The Balloons Were a Traffic Nightmare
Shortly after the balloons had been launched, thousands of them came down and started causing issues for motorists who were utterly distracted by the thousands of balloons that were raining down on them. This ultimately led to a whole lot of swerving and even a few crashes. And this wasn’t the only issue.
They Affected the Local Airport
A bunch of balloons also came down on Burke Lakefront Airport in Cleveland. To avoid a major disaster, one of the runways was shut down for approximately 30 minutes. But cars and airports weren’t the only ones feeling the wrath of these balloons.
A Prized Winning Horse Paid the Price
In Medina County, approximately 40 miles south of the event, the balloons landed in a field and spooked a group of Arabian horses. The animals were terrified and one prize-winning horse had suffered some major injuries. So, its owner, Louise Nowakowski, sued the United Way for $100,000. But the damage went beyond the borders of Ohio.
The Balloons Spread Beyond Ohio
The wind had blown the balloons all over and some of them even settled on the shoreline of Ontario, Canada. So, not only did the citizens of Ohio have a mess on their hands, but so did another country.
An Ontario Man Wrote an Angry Letter
In November 1986, an Ontario man named P. Allen Woodliffe sent a letter to “The Plain Dealer” to discuss what he had seen. “A short time ago, I was walking along the east beach of one of the special natural areas in Ontario-Rondeau Provincial Park. I was greatly dismayed, however, when I saw balloons along the shore – not just one or two but many. In an average 200-yard stretch along the east beach, I counted 140 balloons,” he explained.
Canadians Were Forced to Do Their Own Cleanup
Ultimately, it was up to the people of Ontario, Canada to clean up the remnants of the balloons themselves without the help of the company that fundraised the event on the other side of the border. But back home, in Cleveland’s Lake Erie, something terrible had happened, too.
Two Travelers Went Missing in Lake Erie
A day before the event, Bernard Sulzer and Raymond Broderick has taken a trip to Lake Erie. Their loved ones expected them back, but they didn’t show up the next day. So, their concerned family called authorities for help.
The Balloons Impeded Rescue Efforts
A Search and Rescue team located Sulzer and Broderick’s 16-foot boat by the Edgewater Park breakwater area. Unfortunately, as the rescue team approached, balloons came down on Lake Erie, forcing them to pull back and wait.
The Men Were Invisible Among the Balloons
Eventually, the Coast Guard did an aerial search, but it was impossible to differentiate the missing men in the midst of all the balloons on the lake. So, the search was called off. And then the men resurfaced on the shore, but they were dead.
It Was an Accident
When people learned of the fishermen’s deaths, they grew very angry. It was likely that the water had been choppy because of the weather, which caused the men to lose their footing and fall off their ship. But they might have survived if the coast guard had gotten to them in time. And one of the family members wanted retribution.
The Victim’s Family Sued
In 1988, Raymond’s wife, Gail Broderick, sued the United Way for $3.2 million. She eventually settled for an undetermined amount of money. Regardless, the United Way had already spent $500,000 on the event, and loads more to pay those who had suffered as a result of this event gone-wrong. But did they break the world record?
They Still Broke a World Record
Balloonfest ‘86 did end up in the history book as a major disaster. But despite all the problems the event caused, both the Balloonfest and the United Way earned their place in the Guinness Book of World Records for releasing over 1.5 million balloons.