Thirty Two Years Ago, This Balloon Tragedy Threw An Entire City Into Total Chaos

It was pure horror!

  • By: Afiqah
  • Wednesday, 27 September 2017
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Thirty Two Years Ago, This Balloon Tragedy Threw An Entire City Into Total Chaos
Balloons are, without doubt, a great addition to any joyful celebration. Not only do they provide a vibrant and colourful element to the occasion, they are also fun to play with. Hence, the more the balloons, the merrier it will be, right? Well, unfortunately, that is not always the case. 

It was an event known as Balloonfest ’86. The aim was to raise funds and create some publicity for the charity organisation, United Way of Cleveland. 

The organisers intended to pull off a sensational stunt by attempting to break the world record for releasing the most number of balloons simultaneously. Sounds thrilling, doesn’t it?

Treb Heining from Balloonart by Treb, a company based in Los Angeles, was the head of the behind-the-scenes process. Guess what? The preparation itself reportedly took half a year! 

A huge rectangular structure was set up on Public Square in the heart of Cleveland, a city with a population of almost 500,000 at the time. It measured 250 feet (76 metres) by 150 feet (46 metres) in size and was as tall as a three-storey building.

The woven mesh net ensures the balloons don’t float away ahead of schedule.
Working tirelessly inside the structure were 2,500 students and volunteers. They spent countless hours filling lots and lots of balloons with helium. 

The structure was covered with a woven mesh net that was meant to hold the balloons before the event took place. Two balloons were sold at the price of USD1 (RM4.20) and the proceeds went to the United Way. A noble cause it was.

Check out the balloons.

Taking balloon release to a whole new level!
The Malays have a saying that goes, “Ku sangkakan panas sampai ke petang, rupanya hujan di tengah hari”, literally translated as, “I thought the sun would shine until evening, apparently it rained in the afternoon”. Figuratively, it means that you’d think all would go well but eventually, a problem arises. 

Well, that was pretty much what happened for this event.

According to several media reports, a rainstorm was approaching.  Due to that circumstance, the organisers reportedly made the decision to release the balloons earlier than scheduled. 

Balloons galore – now that’s almost every child’s dream!
Saturday, 27 September 1986, which was thirty one years ago from the date today, was when the balloons finally took off. 

At around 1:50pm, the mesh net was lifted off the structure by large balloons, subsequently unveiling and releasing tonnes of smaller balloons. 
A total of 1,429,643 balloons were reportedly launched that day, filling the sky above the Public Square, surrounding the iconic Terminal Tower and all in all, setting a magical scenery.

If Instagram existed back then...

Filling the skies.

They were biodegradable balloons.  
From ground zero.
The release was successful. A million balloons filled the sky, the people were happy and the city of Cleveland was the new record holder for the most balloons released simultaneously.

They have impressively beaten the previous record set during Disneyland’s 30th anniversary!  

Great win for the city of Cleveland.
Unfortunately, the glory was short-lived when the event took an unexpected, tragic toll. Instead of floating up, dispersing and biodegrading as planned, the specially-made balloons reportedly faced a front of cold air which eventually pushed them back down to the ground. 

When you have almost 1.5 million balloons making their way down, you'd know you’re in for some serious chaos. 

It all came crashing down.
As a result, the streets and waterways of Northeast Ohio were clogged with balloons, and a runway at Burke Lakefront Airport reportedly had to be shut down for 30 minutes when swarms of balloons landed in the area.

Traffic accidents due to drivers swerving to avoid the floating balloons or stopping to admire them were reported too.

In fact, a Cleveland native's Arabian horse was seriously injured when it got spooked by the festival of balloons that landed on the pastureland in Medina County. The poor horse!
A sea full of balloons.
However, the worst consequence of all fell upon Raymond Broderick and Bernard Sulzer, two fishermen who went missing the day before the event.

The search and rescue mission by the Coast Guard and a helicopter was disrupted and made difficult by the balloons that covered the airspace and water surface of the Canadian side of Lake Erie.

Eventually, their bodies were found washed ashore. 

The permanent injury suffered by the four-legged creature and the death of the two men led to lawsuits. In both cases, United Way of Cleveland settled for undisclosed terms. The event suffered a net loss. 

If you want to get more glimpse of how it all went down, you can check out this short documentary by Nathan Truesdell:

The catastrophe of Balloonfest ’86 was painful in many ways. However, let’s not forget that it was an event initiated with good intentions. It was just an unfortunate incident of ‘too much of anything is bad’.

Today, balloon release records are no longer recognised by the Guinness Book of Records, and that's probably for the best.
Kroll, John (August 15, 2011). "Balloonfest 1986, the spectacle that became a debacle: Cleveland Remembers". The Plain Dealer. Retrieved March 15, 2014.
Bellamy, Gail Ghetia (2013). Cleveland Summertime Memories: A Warm Look Back. Gray & Company. p. 65. ISBN 1938441508.
O'Malley, Michael (26 September 2011). "25 years ago, thousands watched a balloon launch on Public Square". The Plain Dealer. Retrieved 5 May 2014.
McCormack, Simon (24 April 2014). "Releasing 1.5 Million Balloons Into The Air Is A Bad Idea". The Huffington Post. Retrieved 4 May 2014.
Livingston, Tom (August 8, 2013). "Cleveland's 1986 Balloonfest, the world record that went bust". WEWS. Retrieved March 15, 2014.
Kushins, Jordan (22 April 2014). "That Time Cleveland Released 1.5 Million Balloons and Chaos Ensued". Gizmodo. Retrieved 5 May 2014.

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