The Balloon Fest of 1986: The Day Cleveland Wished Never Happened

Who doesn’t love balloons, right? And who doesn’t love a whole bunch of them? Well, for one, Cleveland probably wishes they never have to see balloons again. And it might even be the subject of some’s nightmares. Why? Because on September 27, 1986, 1.4 million balloons were released into the atmosphere and what happened next were a chain of events that no one involved would have predicted. What was intended to be a fun and positive fundraiser turned out to be a true disaster that ended costing the city millions of dollars in damages and lawsuits.

See what happened on the day Cleveland wished never happened.

What Was Supposed to be a Charity Event…

This major balloon fest was designed to serve as a charity fundraiser for non-profit organizations, organized by the United Way. It was also an opportunity to break a record on the Guinness Book of World Records.

What Was Supposed to be a Charity Event…

Source: Unusual Interesting

Disney had just set a record for the largest simultaneous balloon launch a year before, so the city was looking to one-up them. The event, called Balloonfest ‘86, highly anticipated and thousands of volunteers congregated for the task of inflating all of the balloons. To remind you: that’s 1.4 million balloons. Think about that for a second…

A Simple Plan

The day of the event was a Saturday, which only meant it would be available to more people to see the publicity stunt. The plan was actually simple: United Way thought of something that could captivate the whole town and at the same time would be a means to collect money for a good cause.

A Simple Plan

Source: Vintage Everyday

They had gotten the amusing idea of from Disneyland, which released over 1.4 million balloons in Anaheim, California for its 30th anniversary. But intentions are one thing.

Within a few hours of the balloons being released, the horror show began…

Six Months of Preparation

While the event itself was organized by United Way, the logistics of the balloons was organized by a company called BalloonArt by Treb out of Los Angeles. They were the same company that made it possible for Disneyland to earn the title a year prior.

Six Months of Preparation

Source: Orange County Register

Treb Heining was the company’s founder and spent six months preparing for the stunt. Having accomplished the stunt a year before, he confidently assured that nothing would go wrong. He even cited Super Bowl and presidential nominations as some of their previous successful works.

The Logistics

The company set up a rectangular structure the size of an entire city block, measuring 250 feet (76 m) by 150 feet (46 m) and three stories high. It was covered with a one-piece net of mesh material which was set up to hold the massive amount of balloons.

The Logistics

Source: Cleveland.com

This structure was located on the southwest quadrant of Cleveland’s Public Square. Inside the enormous structure were 2,500 students and volunteers who spent many hours filling the balloons with helium.

But this seemingly harmless stunt caused major consequences for the city and the surrounding areas…

They Wanted Two Million

United Way was originally planning to release two million balloons, but they had to stop at over 1.4 million. Children had sold sponsorships to benefit United Way, at $1 for every two balloons.

They Wanted Two Million

Photo by Bettman/Getty Images

The work leading up the balloon launch can only be described as hard, considering all the volunteers and students had to work around the clock, making sure everything was just right before the big reveal. The helium-filled latex balloons were floating there in the large mesh net, waiting to be released.

Painting the Horizon

The idea was to release the nearly one and a half million balloons all at once to have them ascend in the skies, and essentially paint the horizon in different colors. The expectation was that the balloons would remain afloat until finally falling back to the ground, and biodegrading.

Painting the Horizon

Source: Piximus

Of course, this was the ideal, and even expected, a scenario that the organizers had in mind. But they didn’t anticipate the possible change in weather conditions. They wanted to create smiles on people’s faces.

But the smiles only lasted for a short while…

A Gloomy Forecast

Sunny and clear skies were not in the forecast for Saturday, September 27, 1986. As it turns out, a rainstorm was approaching, so the organizers had to decide what to do and when. And it was already too late to cancel the big event.

A Gloomy Forecast

Source: Cleveland.com

The organizers, aware of the forecast, deemed it fit to release the balloons earlier than planned due to the changes in the weather. They ended up deciding on an early release of the balloons, which was at 1:50 p.m. EDT.

The Balloon Launch

At that moment, they released the 1.4 million balloons that were just waiting to be sent out into the atmosphere. And when they did, they immediately rose up from Cleveland’s Public Square, surrounding Terminal Tower and exceeding Disneyland’s previous world record.

The Balloon Launch

Source: Imgur

From afar, the sky was like a dark canvas with sprinklings of pink, white, yellow and blue, as though the sky was full of sprinkles. At first, everyone watching was in awe looking at such a stunning scene.

But they couldn’t expect it to be the disaster it would become.

A Chain of Events

The balloons started drifting over the city, Lake Erie, and the surrounding area, which led to a series of events that weren’t anticipated beforehand and it was now too late – the balloons were out and it would be impossible to retrieve them at this point.

A Chain of Events

Photo by Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

The balloons started to cause problems for traffic and even affected a nearby airport. The event even interfered with a United States Coast Guard search that was looking for two boaters who they later found drowned.

It Was All Caught on Film

Thom Sheridan was a Cleveland-based photographer who was given the responsibility of documenting the event and he never could have realized what he was going to be taking footage of. Little did he know that his footage, along with other photos and videos, would eventually be part of the major spectacle.

It Was All Caught on Film

Source: Cleveland.com

The spectacle involved major consequences, ones in which the organizers and the city had to face lawsuits seeking millions of dollars in damages. The entire debacle put the event at a major net loss.

And the organizers had no one to blame, except Mother Nature…

What Goes Up Must Come Down

As the rules of physics have taught us, what goes up has to also come down. The unfortunate weather caused the results to be much more catastrophic than intended. Shortly after the balloon reveal and the “oohs” and “ahhs,” it started to rain.

What Goes Up Must Come Down

Source: Derelict Doug

The rain caused the balloons to descend and land everywhere, and because the balloons were clouding the already cloudy skies, the Burke Lakefront Airport was forced to close a runway. This was just one unforeseen event.

The First Lawsuit

The balloons were disrupting more than just airports, it even came down to the local animals. Tons of balloons also went to Medina County, landing on pasture and frightening some of the horses. When the balloons were landing, the horses got nervous and hurt themselves as a result.

The First Lawsuit

Source: Partridge Horse Hill

Louise Nowakowski’s, the owner of the Montville Township pasture sued United Way for $100,000 in damages to her pasture and her expensive Arabian racehorses, but they eventually settled.

The balloons also interfered with a police search…

A Search for Two Fisherman

To make matters even worse than they already were, balloons were blanketing the area of Lake Erie, where a police search operation was taking place. They were searching for two fishermen who went missing the day before.

A Search for Two Fisherman

Source: Live Sail Die

The ensuing storm brought the balloons back down and were starting to fill Lake Erie completely. As circumstances would have it, the two fishermen who were reported lost on the lake were not able to be found because the balloons blocking the way.

The Two Fishermen

Two fishermen, Raymond Broderick, and Bernard Sulzer had set out on September 26, 1986, to fish. They were later reported missing by their families on the day of the balloon event. Rescuers ultimately spotted their 16-foot boat which was anchored west of the Edgewater Park break wall.

The Two Fishermen

Source: Bizzarro Bazar

A Coast Guard search and rescue helicopter were sent out to find the two men. But the crew was having real difficulty trying to reach the area due to the “asteroid field” of balloons.

United Way would never have anticipated this…

Another Lawsuit

A search-and-rescue boat team tried to spot the fishermen as they were floating in the lake, but Guard officials said that the balloons in the water made it impossible to see if anyone was actually in the lake. Then, on September 29, the Coast Guard suspended the search.

Another Lawsuit

Source: The Weather Channel

Sadly, the two men were later found, the fishermen’s bodies ultimately washed up on the shore. The wife of one of the fishermen sued United Way and Treb, the company that organized the balloon fest, for $3.2 million. But they later settled on undisclosed terms.

At Least They Were Biodegradable

Here’s one good piece of information: the latex balloons were at least biodegradable. That’s aside from the fact that it took several months for them to finally break down. But regardless of their biodegradability, it was still a nuisance. In fact, the repercussions of Cleveland’s balloonfest even reached areas as far as Ontario, Canada.

At Least They Were Biodegradable

Source: The Guardian

And one resident, P. Allen Woodliffe, had this to say: “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 reason the balloons didn’t biodegrade on time was because of the weather…

The Science Behind It

A helium-filled latex balloon released outside will typically stay afloat long enough to be fully deflated before it eventually descends to the ground. But with the Balloonfest balloons, what happened is they collided with a front of cool air and the rain made them drop to the ground.

The Science Behind It

Source: Clearwater Marine Aquarium

Since they came down prematurely, they were still inflated, clogging the land and waters of Northeast Ohio. The balloons were making their way to Canada, and they were reported seen on the shores of the Canadian side of Lake Erie.

Colorfully Littered Beaches

Although the balloons were biodegradable, they were taking a while to disintegrate. Most of the balloons migrated all the way up to Canada, where residents were complaining of the colorful litter on their beaches. And some are still being found to this day.

Colorfully Littered Beaches

Source: Jimboomba Times

Woodliffe (from Ontario) also noted that he still comes across thousands of balloons, saying, “In an average 200-yard stretch along the east beach, I counted 140 balloons. In the same average 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 miles of shoreline at Rondeau.”

Do you know how much the event cost United Way? See, next…

The Event Wasn’t Cheap to Begin With

Not only did the event cost the organizers and the city a lot of money in the aftermath, but it was also a pricey affair, to begin with. The city spent $500,000 on those balloons and everything needed to make the event happen.

The Event Wasn’t Cheap to Begin With

Source: Mashable

One man, Floyd Riemenschneider from Yakima, Washington, was distraught BY the amount of money the United Way spent, noting the hypocrisy in spending such an amount on what was supposed to be a fundraiser. He said: “It seems to me the money spent for this stunt could have been used to much better advantage, seeing as how most of the funds were probably from donations from people who donate because they believe their money is going for a good cause, such as helping out the more unfortunate.”

People Were Angry

Environmentalists, among other witnesses, were displeased with the entire spectacle, disappointed by the ridiculousness of it all and the unnecessary consequences it created. William F. Coret of Woodbine, Iowa had this to say about the results:

People Were Angry

Source: Aeon

It is most distressing to see pictures of the mass release of helium-filled balloons, as such activity involves loss of a non-renewable resource merely to gratify the urge to observe a visual spectacle. Once released, the helium is gone forever and this rare gas is hard to come by and is much needed in non-frivolous scientific and industrial activity.”

So what did United Way have to say?

Last Words

A 1994 profile of George Fraser might reveal the way the director of United Way felt about the event. The profile stated: “By the early 1980s he’d left P&G for a three-year stint as director of marketing and communications for United Way Services of Cleveland. The period was marked by an incident Fraser calls his greatest success and his biggest failure. Balloonfest ’86.”

Last Words

Source: Great Black Speakers

But Fraser preferred to remember Balloonfest for its conception. Fraser also held senior management roles at Ford and Procter & Gamble and went on to write critically acclaimed books on business.

The Silver Lining

If we can just put all the dire consequences aside for a moment, we can see the silver lining of the whole fiasco, even if it’s as faint as can be. The silver lining is that Cleveland indeed won the coveted Guinness World Record.

The Silver Lining

Source: Gypsy Ninja

It could be seen in the 1988 copy of The Guinness Book of World Records which recognized the event as the “largest ever mass balloon release”, with 1,429,643 balloons launched.

But their title was out-won…

The New Title Winner

Cleveland wasn’t the holder of the title for too long. A number of years later, in 1994, the record was surpassed by Wiltshire, England which released 1.7 million balloons.

The New Title Winner

Source: marhaba.qa

If you want to see other world records, specifically records held by celebrities, check out our article on stars who hold Guinness World Records!

Balloon releases apparently have some more meaning behind them than we thought…

What is a Balloon Release?

A balloon release is considered to be a ceremonial event where a number of hydrogen- or helium-filled balloons are unleashed into the sky. Yes, that is somewhat self-explanatory. But there is more than one reason for balloon releases.

What is a Balloon Release?

Source: The Northern Echo

Balloon releases are done for cultural reasons, including being done as a prayer ceremony, to simply create an amazing photo opportunity, to raise awareness for a cause or campaign, or even as a competitive long-distance race (as in hot-air balloons).

But not everyone approves of such a ceremony…

Met With Disapproval

While these may be positive and respectful intentions, not everyone approves of balloon releases. There is considerable opposition and legislation against this type of ceremony due to environmental, flight safety, and wildlife conservation issues.

Met With Disapproval

Source: One Green Planet

A number of organizations, such as the UK’s Marine Conservation Society, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Tidy Britain Group, the National Farmers’ Union and the RSPB, all oppose balloon releases.

Risk of Harm

These organizations oppose these ceremonies because of the impact of the fallen, deflated balloons, which can cause harm to wildlife and domestic animals. And this is why balloon releases are prohibited in some jurisdictions in the UK.

Risk of Harm

Source: rosemarylunn.wordpress.com

In May 2018, a study by Delia M. Webb was published which revealed that 2,223 pieces of balloon litter were found on 39 beaches across Cornwall between the months of July and December in 2016 alone.

Just a Balloon?

The study by Webb was called “Just a balloon? A local study of the extent and impacts of balloon litter on beaches.” Other than the disclosing the alarming amount of balloon litter found on beaches, it also showed something else.

Just a Balloon?

Source: The Tiger

The study reported that some of those balloons found on Cornish beaches had traveled from other regions in the UK, Ireland and throughout Europe. It goes to show that just because you no longer see the object floating in your skies, doesn’t mean it doesn’t affect someone else’s.

The Long-Lasting Impact of Balloons

Environmentalists aim to raise awareness on the detrimental effects of balloon releases. They want it to be known that balloons negatively impact the environment by littering streams, lakes, and beaches.

The Long-Lasting Impact of Balloons

Source: BalloonsBlow.org

In their eyes, it’s no different from intentionally throwing trash on the ground or into the ocean. One problem is that even the balloons labeled and marketed as biodegradable or “eco-friendly” can take years to disintegrate, which means they’re not any better for the environment than regular balloons.

See what the repercussions are for marine life…

When the Balloons Land in the Water

When balloons eventually make their way towards and land into the water, their tattered ends and floating pieces have the ability to resemble jellyfish or other sea life. This results in these pieces being consumed by marine animals like sea turtles, fish, and dolphins.

When the Balloons Land in the Water

Source: Environmental Nature Center

When pieces of latex or Mylar (another balloon material) are mistaken for food and thus ingested, they can get stuck in the animal’s digestive tract, inhibiting their ability to eat and causing them to starve.

Not Just Sea Life

Animals can also be victims of balloons and balloon strings when the pieces fall to the ground or on trees and bushes. Birds are found injured with ribbons wrapped around their beaks or wings, unknowingly strangling themselves when they find these strings attached to trees or power lines.

Not Just Sea Life

Source: Little Things

And similar to marine animals, they can succumb to real harm or death after ingesting the balloons and their strings.

The Impact

This negative impact on animals as well as the environment drove the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and local organizations of the National Audubon Society to take a stance and raise awareness. They are urging people to stop this harmful ceremony.

The Impact

Source: YouTube

They want people to stop releasing balloons and find more humane alternatives instead that are safer for animals and the planet. Some states and cities in the U.S. have passed laws regarding mass balloon releases after years of seeing their detrimental effects.

Helium Scarcity

Another issue people have with balloon releases is the scarcity of helium. Helium is natural atmospheric gas, but it’s limited as a land-resource. As of 2012, the United States National Helium Reserve accounted for 30% of the world’s helium.

Helium Scarcity

Source: The Independent

There are geophysicists who really fear that the world’s helium could be gone in a generation. Therefore, balloon releases are seen as a wasteful use of such a limited resource.

Something similar yet different is the sky lantern…

Similar But Different From Sky Lanterns

Balloon releases can be seen as similar to a sky lantern ceremony of the Chinese tradition, where a group of balloons are released in a quiet, prayerful activity at a funeral or solemn occasion. But sky lanterns float down after a short time.

Similar But Different From Sky Lanterns

Source: Quartz

Helium balloons, on the other hand, can reach a height of anywhere up to 6.5 miles, quickly rising up and not usually seen again by those who released them.

Famous Balloon Releases

There have been some noteworthy balloon releases over the years. Maybe not as spectacular as the Balloonfest of ’86, but still mentionable. In 2011, for instance, a farmer from Stalisfield Green near Ashford in Kent, England, sued for damages due to a balloon release event.

Famous Balloon Releases

Source: arkonline

He successfully claimed compensation after one of his bulls choked to death on a string of a balloon. It was one of many that were released by students at Lyndhurst Primary School in Camberwell, over 50 miles away, as part of a Comic Relief event.

Then in 2016, something else happened…

Another Notable Balloon Event

In 2008, Radio City 2, a radio station in Liverpool, England, started releasing hundreds of balloons every year (with messages attached) from the roof of their studio. This annual stunt was met with continued lobbying by the public.

Another Notable Balloon Event

Source: X-Ray Magazine

Then in December 2016, DJ Pete Price ignored the pleas not to do it, and he went ahead and released balloons at the end of the radio show ‘Remember A Loved One At Christmas’. Two journalists contacted Radio City 2’s owner, Bauer Media Group, complaining and it resulted in the company being restricted from releasing any balloons in the future.

To Reduce Pollution?

In February 2018, Quartz Travel (a British-based travel agency) stated they were going to “work with Greenpeace to release 500 biodegradable balloons filled with messages as part of a campaign to reduce plastic pollution at sea.”

To Reduce Pollution?

Source: NRDC

This may seem ironic considering the balloons would only contribute to sea pollution. And this was also met with mass lobbying by the public. Quartz Travel then canceled the balloon release a few days later.

Leading the Way

Also in February 2018, ‘EastEnders’ released balloons while filming an episode to mark the death of a character. This was three days after the BBC’s Director-General announced their three-step plan to remove single-use plastic from their operations.

Leading the Way

Source: Ocean Society

Tony Hall, BBC’s Director-General said, “Like millions of people watching Blue Planet II, I was shocked to see the avoidable waste and harm created by single-use plastic. We all need to do our bit to tackle this problem, and I want the BBC to lead the way.”

How Long It Takes for a Balloon to Biodegrade

Oxidation is the first thing that happens during the breakdown of a latex balloon, which begins within about an hour of inflation. Oxidation is sometimes visible as a cloudy appearance which is most evident when the balloon is exposed to sunlight, heat or normal outdoor conditions.

How Long It Takes for a Balloon to Biodegrade

Source: Balloonatics Designs

The research was done in July of 1989 with a variety of balloons under different conditions to accurately measure the time needed for the latex to degrade. Results from that study show that the time it takes to decompose is about the same rate as an oak leaf (6 months).

Alternatives to Balloons

Since we’ve shown all of the rather “unfriendly” consequences of balloons released into the atmosphere, we thought we should give some ocean- and animal-friendly alternatives. So if you’re thinking of getting a bunch of balloons, think of these ideas instead…

Alternatives to Balloons

Source: Jason Noble

You can still celebrate in the same manner as you would with balloons, delivering the same kind of awe and color, with flags, banners, streamers, kites, pinwheels, flowers, and bubbles! Bubbles are probably the most fun of all these options. Who doesn’t love bubbles?