What started as a harmless fundraising publicity stunt ultimately ended in a catastrophe.
In 1986, an attempt at breaking a world record with balloons occurred in Cleveland, Ohio. The event, which was meant to be a harmless fundraising publicity stunt, however, didn’t go as planned and unintentionally left unforeseen consequences in its wake.
The event, which became known as Balloonfest ’86 was an attempt by a nonprofit organization, United Way of Cleveland in Ohio to put Cleveland on the map. They decided to achieve this by way of breaking the world record for the simultaneous release of balloons that had been set the year previously by Disney in Anaheim, California, on the 30th anniversary of Disneyland.
On September 27, 1986, the day of the stunt arrived, though the organizers ultimately released the balloons earlier than previously planned due to a rainstorm that was fast approaching that day. At 1:50 p.m., nearly 1.5 million balloons were let go, and rose up from Cleveland’s Public Square, surrounding Terminal Tower.
With the balloons free, the thinking was that they would all stay in the air until fully deflating and returning to earth. Regrettably, that’s not what ended up happening, however. After being let go, the floating spheres of colorful helium-filled latex collided with a front of cool air and rain, causing them to fall back down towards the ground, still inflated.
Consequences And A Disaster
The more than one million balloons dropped back down to earth, littering the land and clogging waterways all over Northeast Ohio. Not only that, many of the balloons consequently washed ashore on the Canadian side of Lake Erie the following several days afterward.
Several instances of the chaos and outcome that followed included:
- A number of the balloons landed on a pasture in Medina County, Ohio, which spooked some Arabian horses owned by a woman, Louise Nowakowski and reportedly led to injuries to the horses. Nowakowski subsequently sued United Way for $100,000 worth of damages, and the matter was settled under undisclosed terms.
- After many of the balloons landed on one of their runaways, The Burke Lakefront Airport was forced to shut it down for half an hour.
- The balloons had also caused multiple reported traffic collisions.
“as drivers swerved to avoid slow motion blizzards of multi-colored orbs or took their eyes off the road to gawk at the overhead spectacle.”
In the worst consequence to come from the disaster, though, was when the balloons inadvertently impeded a search and rescue of two vanished fishermen. The missing men, Raymond Broderick, and Bernard Sulzer had been reported missing the day the event had taken place. Although their 16-foot boat was located anchored west of the Edgewater Park break wall, the Coast Guard search and rescue crews were not able to find them. Since there were so many balloons scattered around, rescuers couldn’t distinguish between a balloon or a person.
On September 29, the Coast Guard suspended its search, and the bodies of both men subsequently washed ashore days later. The wife of one of the men later sued United Way of Cleveland and the company that organized the event, a suit that was settled on undisclosed terms.
In the end, the event did lead to a new world record being broken, but it didn’t go off without a hitch. If there’s one thing this tragic event proved, was that even the most harmless of actions, and the best of intentions could lead to a disastrous outcome. Hopefully, others can take note from this and try safer publicity stunts, or at least, better precautions will be taken into account for the future.
Balloonfest 1986, the spectacle that became a debacle: Cleveland Remembers (video)
At about 1:50 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 27, 1986, close to 1.5 million balloons boiled up from Cleveland's Public Square…