Interesting Facts

How Cleveland's Balloonfest in 1986 Turned Into a Public Tragedy

In Cleveland, Ohio, United Way broke the world record by deflating nearly 1.5 million balloons as part of a publicity stunt to raise money. The balloon obstructed a US Coast Guard search for two boaters who were subsequently discovered to have drowned, blocked airport runways, and blocked land and waterways.

A Guinness World Record attempt involving the release of 1.5 million balloons above Cleveland was made on September 27, 1986. However, what was intended to be a fundraising stunt for the United Way of Cleveland ended up being a disaster.

At the time, Disneyland held the record for the largest simultaneous balloon launch, having established it one year earlier during the celebration of the theme park’s 30th birthday. Balloonfest’s objectives were straightforward: to collect money for the United Way chapters in the area and to promote Cleveland as one of the country’s most promising new cities.

In a 2014 interview with Gizmodo, Tom Holowach, the project manager of Balloonfest ’86, said, “The guy from the United Way who thought this up had been in marketing at Proctor and Gamble and was attempting to reinvent Cleveland as cool.” Cleveland wants to rebuild their reputation after making significant improvements.

The event’s conception to completion required six months of planning. The balloons were enclosed in a huge net construction the size of a city block. The location, in Cleveland’s Public Square, was chosen to draw as many people as possible.

“There’s a limitless amount of technological research and research conducted using local permissions. Treb Heining, the person in charge of the balloon launch, said, “Trying to get something like this off is really astonishing. “This is a perfect illustration of what United Way is trying to accomplish in terms of saying, ‘Cleveland, it’s your time.’ It’s time to say yes. It’s time to say it is a happening city. We are on the move. It’s no longer the punchline of jokes.”

Local media crowded the location on September 27 to conduct interviews with organizers, participants, and spectators while more than 2,500 volunteers, most of whom were students, spent the morning helium-filling balloons.

Officials made the decision to launch the balloons sooner than expected since a storm was approaching and posing a threat to the event. The colorful inflatables were released into the air at 1:50 PM local time.

The show was breathtaking to witness. As the balloons rose into the sky, the audience cheered. As Cleveland’s name was cheered, the crowd’s pride in their city grew. A local radio DJ covering the event remarked, “There is no longer a mistake on the lake’.” “Cleveland has already released more than 1.5 million balloons, shattering the previous record set by the Guinness Book of World Records! ”

Balloonfest quickly turned from a success to a failure.

The helium-filled balloons were supposed to remain in the air until finally deflating and returning to Earth, according to the organizers. But the balloons descended while still inflated due to a cold front and rain.

The sight caused multiple traffic accidents in the Cleveland area by diverting drivers. The decorations blocked the streets and canals. Due to balloons on their runaways, Burke Lakefront Airport had to be closed for 30 minutes. Some Arabian horses who were on the farm were scared by a group of balloons that landed on a meadow in Medina County, Ohio, causing animal injuries.

The saddest impact, though, was on Lake Erie’s water. Two guys, Raymond Broderick and Bernard Sulzer had gone fishing the day before the event. Their family reported the men missing when they didn’t come home. Authorities started looking for the boat on September 27 and found it that morning. Balloons all over the lake greatly hampered the Coast Guard’s efforts to locate the missing men.

“It’s like trying to find a needle in a haystack,” explained one of the authorities conducting the search. “You’re looking for more or less a head or an orange life jacket, and here you have a couple hundred thousand orange balloons. It’s just hard to decipher which is which.”

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