On September 27, 1986 the city of Cleveland tried to set a world record. Not for the number of hugs in an hour or the highest human pyramid. No, they decided to set the world record for the largest number of balloons released, to the tune of 1.5 million balloons.
People gathered in Cleveland’s Public Square to see Balloonfest ’86 and the releasing of the 1.5 million balloons. The $500,000 stunt began as a fundraiser for United Way of Cleveland but ended up being a colossal headache that disrupted everyday life and, perhaps, even deadly.
The balloon release was scheduled at 1:50 p.m. on a rainy, windy Saturday. It was nowhere near the ideal weather conditions to release helium balloons as the northern winds blew the balloons in that direction and the rain pushed them down.
How they were released is best explained by reporter Jane Kahoun of The Plain Dealer, a Cleveland newspaper:
The tethered balloons, which had been filled throughout the morning by 2,500 students and volunteers inside of an enormous white plastic balloon bin on the southwest quadrant of the square, resembled a hug multicolored dome before they were let loose. Within seconds after larger balloons lifted the net from the bin, the balloons obscured the tower, then floated skyward, soon becoming specks among the clouds.
As the balloons descended sooner rather than later due to the weather and they did so in force. So much so that they shut down a runway at the Burke Lakefront Airport, blanketed Lake Erie and coated the northern shores with deflated balloons. The balloons spooked horses and interrupted a Coast Guard search and rescue of two missing boaters.
Balloons were still an issue long after the spectacle. In November, P. Allen Woodliffe of Morpeth, Ontario complained about the aftermath to The Plain Dealer editor.
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. In the same distance along the south beach, there were at least 300. This translated into anywhere from 10,000 to 15,000 balloons scattered along the 8-1/2 mile of shoreline at Rondeau. . . . These balloons, being made of plastic, are not readily biodegradable and, thus, will create an eyesore for some time to come, or else be an unnecessary and time-consuming expense for someone to clean up. They may also be hazards to wildlife such as waterfowl, gulls or terns.
The United Way Services of Cleveland also saw legal problems pertaining to the event. They were sued in 1987 by Louise Nowakowski who claimed that her Arabian horses suffered injuries after being spooked by balloons. Additionally, a year later, Gail Broderick sued the United Way for $3.2 million because she affirms that the balloon release hampered the Coast Guard search for her husband. Because it was raining that day, the weather forced balloons down on Lake Erie and made it impossible to decipher between a balloon and a person. Her husband, along with his fellow boater, was later found drowned.
While the sight of 1.5 million balloons being released must have been a sight to behold, the outcome was far from pleasant. In their quest to set a world balloon record, the organizers forgot the most important scientific law of all – what goes up must come down. And down they did. That’s gravity for you!
John Kroll, “Balloonfest 1986, the spectacle that became a debacle: Cleveland Remembers,” The Plain Dealer, August 15, 2011.
The Plains Dealer, “How did all those balloons end up in Lake Erie? Cleveland Remembers — do you?” August 15, 2011.