It began at about 1:50 pm, on Saturday, September 27, 1986. The “United Way” of Cleveland, Ohio, began their long planned fundraising event, by releasing 1.5 million helium balloons from downtown Cleveland in order to set a world record.
It was advertised as Balloonfest, and it would break the record set the previous year in Anaheim, California, when Disneyland celebrated their 30th anniversary. The Guinness Book of World Records recorded the event as the “largest ever mass balloon release”.
I guess the event planners forgot the basic law of gravity; what goes up must come down.
It starting raining, but the organizers were not about to let a little rain stop the spectacle. After all they were not made out of sugar. The winds kicked up and literally pushed the balloons upwards into the rain which then pushed them downwards.
This resulted in a reign or more so “rain” of terror for Cleveland and the surrounding area, that lasted for days and weeks. The balloons shut down Burke Lakefront Airport because the runway was covered in multicolored balloons. Traffic was disrupted by all the collisions that occurred as drivers swerved around the colorful orbs of latex.
An international incident was reported when Canada filed a complaint with the USA because the balloons were causing an environmental mess as fully inflated balloons landed on the Canadian side of Lake Erie.
This nonprofit fundraising event was manned by hundreds of volunteers and was to make money whenever children sold sponsorships at the price of $1 for every two balloons. However, lawsuits ruined any possibility of any profit when on September 26, two fisherman were reported missing on Lake Erie, and a Coast Guard helicopter couldn’t reach them because of the “asteroid field” of balloons.
On September 29, the fishermen’s bodies washed ashore. The United Way was sued and settled out of court. Fully inflated balloons landed on a pasture spooking Arabian horses, and a thoroughbred suffered serious injuries which led to another law suit that was also settled for undisclosed terms.
This debacle has earned a spot as one of Cleveland’s weird and dubious historical oddities. It has been reported that the Cleveland United Way lost millions of dollars in this ill advised fundraising event.
The obvious lesson is to always, “do your due diligence”.
About the Author: Jake Tewel holds a Masters Degree from YU, a wine seller, caterer and a million miler for the past 15 years. Jake is a best friend, great neighbor, your go to travel person, father, grandfather and loving husband. He is now focusing his efforts on heart healthy nutrition, exercise and travel.