Cleveland Sent Over One Million Balloons Into The Sky, And The Consequences Were Truly Disastrous

What’s the biggest number of balloons you’ve ever witnessed soaring through the sky at once? A dozen, perhaps, or maybe even a few hundred if you’re lucky? Well, when crowds gathered in Cleveland, Ohio, in September 1986, they were treated to an incredible sight. In a record-breaking spectacle, nearly 1.5 million brightly colored, helium-filled balls rose up to the heavens – only to come plummeting back down. And as a result, the surrounding area was plunged into disarray in a disaster that continues to haunt the community more than 30 years on.

Before this, the city of Cleveland had been preparing for the imaginatively titled Balloonfest ’86 for half a year. Keen to raise money and spread awareness about the work it was doing in the area, the charity United Way of America had hit on an ambitious idea. That September, the organization would attempt to beat a world record while ensuring that Ohio hit the headlines at the same time.

The record was for the most balloons ever launched in one go. And at first, it seemed as though United Way would be up to the challenge. But not long after lift-off from Cleveland’s Public Square, a storm front descended on the city. Battered by the wind and rain, the colorful cloud was forced back down, carpeting the streets and wreaking havoc for miles around.

As you can imagine, the sudden appearance of a thick layer of balloons across Cleveland caused untold confusion. And even long after the culprits had been deflated, the effects of Balloonfest were still being felt. So, what was the story behind this ambitious stunt – and how did it go so drastically wrong?

A year before the Balloonfest disaster, there was another – far more successful – mass balloon launch in the United States. On December 5, 1985, the similarly named Skyfest took place in Anaheim, California, to mark not only 30 years since the opening of Disneyland, but also Walt Disney’s 84th birthday. And like the folks at United Way, the organizers seemed to want to make it into the record books.

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Before Skyfest, you see, the world record for the most balloons launched in one go had been set in Japan in 1984, with a little under 400,000 inflatables taking to the skies. But Disneyland didn’t just want to beat this record – the park wanted to smash it. And so groups of children and teens were roped in to help pack thousands of tubes with balloons in the famous attraction’s parking lot.

Ultimately, Skyfest saw the launch of one million balloons, easily setting a new world record. Reports say the cloud was so big that it partially blocked out the sun, causing a shadow to fall across Anaheim. But what goes up must come down. And while there are no records that detail the consequences of this stunt, it’s likely that local residents were sweeping up the aftermath for many days to come.

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Still, whatever happened after Skyfest, it probably wasn’t as bad as the fallout from the event in Cleveland the following year. That stunt was so disastrous that lawsuits against United Way were still being filed many months after. Clearly, things did not go to plan – something that’s all too common when it comes to record-breaking attempts around the world.

You need only look at what happened in 2005 when a record-breaking attempt went awry in the Dutch city of Leeuwarden. For weeks, the staff at an exhibition center had been arranging dominoes – four million of them, to be precise – in a bid to make history. But, unfortunately, a rogue sparrow had other ideas.

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Before the attempt could begin, the bird flew into the event’s location and sent some 23,000 of the dominoes flying. Enraged, officials summoned pest control, which promptly dispatched the guilty critter. But this didn’t go down too well with animal rights advocates, who encouraged supporters to further sabotage the occasion.

Eventually, those at Leeuwarden did manage to set a new record – although the sparrow’s death meant the achievement was somewhat marred. And while no birds were thought to have been harmed in Cleveland’s 1986 record-breaking attempt, there were parallels with the event in the Netherlands. Yes, United Way may have also succeeded in what it set out to do, but the disastrous consequences of Balloonfest ultimately overshadowed any glory.

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But, you may be wondering, what exactly was it that made the charity want to host such an event in the first place? Well, officials at the community-strengthening organization were looking for a fundraising idea. They didn’t just want to raise cash, however, but also boost the Cleveland branch’s profile and raise awareness of their mission.

And United Way would certainly succeed in getting its name out there – even if it wasn’t quite in the way that bosses may have imagined. Towards the beginning of 1986, the charity began planning an ambitious publicity stunt. Yes, we’re talking about the attempt to beat Disneyland’s record balloon launch, which had taken place not even a year before.

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Over the next few months, a Los Angeles business called Balloonart by Treb worked on the project, plotting exactly how to top Disneyland’s massive achievement. And, eventually, a plan was put in place. In the southwest section of the city’s Public Square, a vast structure was built to contain some two million balloons.

According to reports, this box measured some 200 by 150 feet, which is roughly the size of an entire block. In preparation for the event, a large net was also strung across the top. Then, on September 26, volunteers – many of whom were high school-aged – arrived to begin funneling helium into the balloons.

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In the end, it would take around 2,500 people many hours to prepare for the record-breaking launch. To keep these folks motivated as they struggled to fill and fasten the endless supply of balloons, officials assured them that they were making history. According to a contemporary article in the Cleveland newspaper The Plain Dealer, one organizer told the team, “We need you to keep going. You’ll be known around the world.”

But for volunteers such as Mandy Basel, who was 16 at the time, it was a grueling endeavor. In a 2011 interview with Cleveland.com, she recalled, “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.”

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Now, Basel remembers little about the event dubbed Balloonfest – except the long hours. The Cleveland resident didn’t even write about it in her diary at the time, nor did she bother to watch the actual launch the following day. In the interview, the now-41-year-old speculated that her sore fingers may have been to blame. But is it possible that she somehow predicted just how bad things were about to get?

While teenagers such as Basel were slaving away inflating balloons, others tried to raise funds for United Way by asking around for sponsor money. But as the afternoon of September 27 approached, achy fingers weren’t the only thing casting a shadow over the launch. The weather forecasts had begun to come in – and they didn’t look good.

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Fearing what could happen if conditions took a turn for the worse, organizers put a halt to proceedings when they had reached approximately 1.5 million balloons. After all, they must have reasoned, that would be more than enough to leave Disneyland’s previous record in the dust. But none of them could have predicted the disaster that would come next.

At around 1:50 p.m., a number of large inflatables were released, each tied to the net that kept the horde of smaller, helium-filled balloons in check. And just as the organizers had planned, the mesh layer was lifted, allowing the brightly colored cloud beneath it to break free. Just try to imagine what an incredible sight it would have made.

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As they floated up into the sky, the balloons swamped Terminal Tower, the 770-foot skyscraper that overlooks the Public Square. At the time, eager onlookers hoped to see the cloud dissipate across the city, spreading color through a dull Cleveland day. But, sadly, the record-breaking attempt took a decidedly different turn.

Soon after the release, the predicted cold front swept in over Public Square, forcing the balloons back in the direction from which they’d arisen. And as they fell, the helium-filled balls created chaos throughout Cleveland and beyond. In fact, the event turned into such a disaster that local residents would recall it with horror for many years to come.

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After all, how would you react if you were innocently driving along, only to see hundreds of thousands of balloons plummeting towards you from the sky? On the streets of Cleveland, motorists responded with shock and bewilderment. Either distracted by the spectacle or suddenly swamped by the cloud, a few of them are reported to have swerved and crashed.

In downtown Cleveland, beside Lake Erie, countless balloons also descended upon Burke Lakefront Airport. In order to prevent an even bigger disaster, then, one runway was out of action for 30 minutes. But the chaos wasn’t just limited to the city itself. Some 40 miles south, in Medina County, the spheres touched down in a field, spooking the Arabian horses that were grazing there.

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It seems at least one of the horses was so terrified that it sustained serious injuries – a severe blow for the previously prize-winning animal. As a result, the animal’s owner, Louise Nowakowski, later sued United Way for damages amounting to $100,000. But the figure that the charity actually paid out isn’t publicly known.

And while the effects on Cleveland were fairly immediate, the impact of Balloonfest was still being felt in the surrounding area for weeks. As the breezy weather blew the inflatables across Lake Erie, they reached as far as Ontario, Canada, where they settled along the shoreline. Before long, citizens from an entirely different country found themselves having to deal with heaps of non-biodegradable waste.

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In November 1986 Ontario resident P. Allen Woodliffe wrote to The Plain Dealer to complain about this, too. The letter read, “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.”

Eventually, reports claim, it fell to the Canadians themselves to collect and discard the rogue balloons. But that was far from the worst thing to come out of the ill-fated fundraiser. When the inflatables began descending on Cleveland, a tragedy was unfolding out on nearby Lake Erie – and events soon took a deadly turn.

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The day before the launch, two anglers named Bernard Sulzer and Raymond Broderick had gone out onto the water for what was supposed to be a short trip. By the next morning, however, they still hadn’t returned home. Afraid that something may have happened to the men, their loved ones duly alerted the authorities, and a search-and-rescue operation was subsequently launched.

After a while, Sulzer and Broderick’s 16-foot vessel was spotted near the Edgewater Park breakwater in the west of the city. But before rescuers could close in on the location, a blanket of balloons descended on Lake Erie. Unable to see clearly, members of the Coast Guard were therefore forced to postpone the search.

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Yet the disaster didn’t end there. According to reports, conditions eventually cleared enough for the Coast Guard to mount an aerial search for the missing men. By that point, though, it had become extremely difficult for them to pick out two humans amongst the mass of colorful inflatables that had landed on the water. And, ultimately, the operation was called off entirely.

Some time later, the bodies of the two fishermen appeared on the lake’s edge. And it wasn’t long before people began blaming Balloonfest for their untimely deaths. Of course, it had probably been choppy waters – and not the release of hundreds of thousands of inflatables – that had flung the men from their vessel. But had the water not been clogged up with floating spheres, the pair may well have survived their ordeal.

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That’s certainly what the families of the fishers believed, anyway. And in 1988 Gail Broderick, the wife of one of the deceased, attempted to sue United Way for $3.2 million. According to her claim, the fallout from Balloonfest had seriously hindered the Coast Guard’s ability to search for the missing men.

Ultimately, Broderick settled with United Way for an undisclosed sum. And that payment was just one in a long line of expenses that ensured Balloonfest was far from the money-maker venture it set out to be. It’s estimated, in fact, that United Way shelled out around $500,000 on the event – even before things started to go wrong.

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At the time, people criticized the organization for spending so much money on such a seemingly frivolous endeavor. But it cannot be denied that Balloonfest has gone down in history – even if it is for all the wrong reasons. And while some in Cleveland would rather put the entire fiasco to the back of their minds, there are plenty who still remember the time when rogue balloons descended on the city en masse.

Still, there is one question that needs to be answered: did the organizers of the infamous event actually achieve what they set out to do? Well, despite the chaos, Balloonfest and United Way did appear in the 1988 edition of the Guinness Book of World Records. More than 1.4 million balloons had been released, after all, and the rules did not specify what needed to happen to them after the launch.

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United Way remained undefeated in the world of mass balloon release for six glorious years, in fact. But, in 1994, a new champion emerged. That year, 1.7 million inflatables were launched in Wiltshire, England, forcing Cleveland out of the record books. And given the disdain with which Balloonfest is now viewed, it seems unlikely that the city will attempt to reclaim its title any time soon.

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