Cleveland Launched 1.5 Million Balloons into the Air and Chaos Ensued
Over one million balloons were about to be released over the city of Cleveland. Masses of people waited for the big moment, taking photos as keepsakes. The great event took a long time to plan; there were even helicopters overhead.
The excitement was palpable; many people had been looking forward to this spectacle. They had no idea what chaos they were unleashing, but they were about to find out.
Achieving a World Record
This was 1986, the year of Chernobyl, Oprah, and MTV. It was also the 30th anniversary of the Guinness World Records. Gunness was world-renowned as the publisher of stunts, events, and all manner of activities that held the record in some category.
The City of Cleveland was anxious to be part of the Guinness anniversary edition book, and many of its citizens submitted outlandish ideas for what the city could do to win entry into the famous book. Little did they know what kind of fame they would achieve.
An Outrageous Act for a Great Cause
Cleveland’s United Way program was strong and successful in raising funds to help improve social justice. It was part of the United Way effort that was carried out all over the United States, and the city was proud of its achievements.
The United Way relies on donations to do its work. Each year during the United Way campaign, the organization creates unique campaigns to encourage citizens to donate. In 1986, the United Way of Cleveland hit upon a crazy idea to raise money. Crazy it was, but also flawed.
The Geography of Cleveland
See the map below to get an idea of where Cleveland is situated. It sits right on the coast of Lake Erie, the fourth largest of the famous Great Lakes. Cleveland is also close to Canada, just across Lake Erie.
If you look at the map and imagine a balloon launch, you can easily see what the problem might be. A great and clever idea to raise money for a good cause was about to go horribly wrong.
The plan was to hold the most massive balloon launch ever – Balloonfest, with over one million balloons. In 1986, the current record was held by Disney, a company that certainly had more resources than Cleveland to carry out such a huge event.
It was time to call in an expert. Balloonart by Tred was a Los Angeles company owned by Tred Heining. He was famous for his balloon art which had been seen at Super Bowls, Academy Awards, and even presidential inaugurations.
Creating the Balloon Cloud
When you think of a balloon launch, you probably imagine thousands of people holding balloons and letting them go at the same time. With over a million balloons, that’s just not possible. The balloons were actually held under a huge net, waiting for release.
And who filled all of those balloons? It was the residents of Cleveland, and the process took many hours. When the volunteers, over two million of them, had filled 1.5 million balloons, they figured it was time to stop.
A Great Fundraiser
One amazing aspect of this disaster-to-come was the involvement of school children who sold balloon sponsorships. For one dollar, you could purchase two balloons that would be filled and sent to the skies.
The kids’ efforts brought in a great deal of funding for the United Way, and the goodwill was incredible. The plan seemed perfect – kids raising money for a good cause and a fun-filled day watching the balloons go up. But that’s not how it happened.
Ignoring the Weather
The organizers looked forward to launch day, which they hoped would be sunny and not too windy. However, one look at the sky that morning made it obvious that it was going to be windy and stormy. Was it a good idea to go ahead or postpone?
The organizers considered postponing the event but dismissed the idea. The balloons were ready, the people were excited, and they were determined to move forward with the plan. Maybe they should have waited.
Storm, Cold, and Wind
The skies darkened as preparations for Balloonfest began. Everyone kept peeking at the skies, hoping they would clear. Maybe Mother Nature was warning them that sending a million balloons into the skies was a bad idea.
Then the temperature plummeted. Cold air is very bad news for balloons, which would easily pop in such weather. It just seemed that the organizers were being sent messages to call off the event. They should have listened to those messages.
The Trajectory of Helium Balloons
When a helium-filled balloon rises into the sky, it keeps floating upwards until all of the helium escapes from the balloon. This little scientific fact is important, especially for massive balloon launches, and was probably the biggest flaw in the Balloonfest plan.
The planners assumed that the balloons would just come back down when they ran out of helium. But this was not the case because of something else that happened at Balloonfest that no one saw coming.
Balloons + Rain = Disaster
Let’s have a little science lesson. While helium-filled balloons float into the air when the weather is clear, they actually drop to the ground when rained upon. Now that you are an expert in how balloons work, you can guess what happened.
Think about the thousands of people gathered in the center of Cleveland who’d waited months for this day. They were excited and had no idea of this scientific fact – they were expecting the balloons to go up into the rainy skies in a beautiful rainbow of color.
Someone Ignored the Warnings
Tred Heining, the master of balloon launches, and specially hired for this event, ignored warnings. His team warned him that releasing the balloons on a rainy day could end in disaster. Tred resisted the idea of postponement.
After all, he’d been hired to organize this event to get into the Guinness World Records and was not about to call it off after months of preparation. We don’t know exactly what he was thinking, but perhaps he hoped the skies would clear in time.
Close to Cancellation
Word got out, probably after the disaster happened, that the organizers were ready to call it off due to the weather conditions. There were probably many in the preparation team who doubted whether the balloons would successfully float in the rain.
But the final decision was to go forward with the launch. It was hard for the organizers to believe that after all of their hard work, anything could truly go wrong. One can only wonder how they felt after the dramatic disaster.
The Launch Happens
After all of the worrying and debate about whether to postpone, the decision was made to go ahead and Tred released the Balloonfest 1986 balloons a bit earlier than was scheduled, hoping to minimize the storm’s impact.
As you read on and find out what happened, you will be amazed at both the effort it took to prepare for this event and at the poor judgment on the part of the planners in failing to cancel the launch.
Everyone Was Watching
Tred was determined to go ahead with the launch and gave the order to set the balloons free a bit early, thinking that the event would happen ahead of the storm. When he gave the order to launch, the tarps holding down the balloons unleashed 1,429,643 balloons into the skies.
The balloons flew into the sky en masse and looked like a gorgeous shower of confetti. The crowd was ecstatic, cheering and clapping on the ground, celebrating the city’s achievement. They had no idea what a terrible mistake they’d made.
A Spectacular Sight
The crowd watching got what they came for – an amazing sky filled with beautiful colorful balloons all floating upwards to the skies. It seemed for a moment that all of the hard work, planning, and fundraising was worth it.
What could possibly go wrong on such a perfect day? It was a massive celebration, Treb was being congratulated, and the kids who’d done the fundraising were so proud of themselves. The city of Cleveland was proud. Well, they were proud for a while.
Things Start to Go Wrong
If you remember our geography and science lessons above (don’t worry, there will not be a quiz), you can imagine what was about to happen. The huge storm, the cool weather, and the winds combined to create disaster.
What happened next will horrify you. How such a wonderful day could unleash such destruction and chaos is hard to believe. The super famous balloon event creator had made a disastrous mistake that would cost this great city untold misery.
A City’s Worst Moments
No one who was there that day or who was told the story afterward would ever forget what happened. It was terrifying and certainly a watershed moment in the history of the city.
The scale of the damage was unimaginable. If the balloons had just fallen down from where they were launched, it would have been horrible. But the damage went far beyond the city center, and everyone realized that Cleveland would have to pay for this in many ways.
The police flying the helicopters overhead expected the balloons to float up as a single large column. But at the moment of the launch, the wind picked up and pushed the mass of balloons downwards instead.
The helicopter pilots managed to avoid what would have been certain peril by maneuvering their aircraft out of what had become a mushroom cloud above the city. But that mushroom cloud was just the start of a frightening and dangerous path.
Everything Went Wrong
Helium-filled balloons usually simply rise into the stratosphere, and the wind scatters them. However, the cold front entering Cleveland that day created a situation where the balloons were spread at a lower altitude and over a wider area.
On a sunny, warm day, the balloons actually expand as they rise, and the air pressure around them changes. The expansion causes the balloon to explode, and the pieces of plastic just fall to the ground. But that’s not what happened on this day
No One Expected This
Treng Heining and his team had erred big time. In their enthusiasm to launch this mega-event, they didn’t take into consideration that the balloons that go up will eventually come down. That’s a pretty basic law of science, and the balloons did just that.
The unexploded balloons, weighed down by the colder air, began to fall, and not just on the center of the city. They fell like big colorful raindrops onto streets, rivers, lakes, and farms. Most fell over Canada and Lake Erie, bobbing along on the waters of the lake.
The Mistake Becomes a Disaster
Residents in the Cleveland area, the Lake Erie area, and areas of Canada just across the lake began to call in complaints by the hundreds. To them, it wasn’t pretty; it was dangerous and destructive.
There was surprise that the environmental agencies had allowed this launch, which caused millions of choking hazards to land near wildlife. Drivers were in extreme danger of having accidents with the balloons plummeting down on the roads. And at the nearby airport, it was even worse.
The Airport Shuts Down
Thousands of balloons had landed on the runways of a nearby airport. Planes could not take off or land. The airport declared an emergency and shut down; it could not open until the runways were cleared, which took hours.
Flights were delayed, and some were canceled or diverted to other airports. This had a huge ripple effect on all of the airline schedules, with passengers furious that balloons had messed up their travel plans. And if you can believe it, it was about to get worse.
At a nearby racecourse, the valuable, prize-winning horses were terrified by the balloons falling. They began to stampede and, as horses do when they are terribly frightened, they ran into one another as if blinded by their fear.
Many of the horses became injured and were not able to compete until they recovered. Their owners were furious and demanded compensation, suing United Way for the damages. And the trail of balloon-related damage does not end there.
The Saddest Part of the Story
The very worst effect of Balloonfest 1986 was that it claimed two lives. The afternoon of the balloon release, officials at Lake Erie began searching for two missing fishermen. What they found was beyond everyone’s worst fears.
The men’s boat had been found close to shore. It had obviously capsized, and it looked damaged. Inside, searchers found a rushing rod and a fisherman’s cap. All feared that somehow the balloons had caused the boat to capsize, and the search began for the men. But there was one huge problem.
An Impossible Search
That problem was, once again, the balloons. Helicopters began searching Lake Erie, but the fallen balloons that were covering the lake obscured the view. The colorful balloons were bobbing up and down on the surface, making it impossible to search.
The fisherman would have been wearing orange life jackets, but they would be floating amid colorful balloons, many of which were orange-colored. It was nearly impossible to identify a human floating amid that riot of color. Two days later, sadly, the men’s bodies washed up on shore.
A Very Poor Plan
In short, Balloonfest 1986 was a total nightmare. So much damage and chaos from an event that was supposed to bring the city together and help the underprivileged. When accused by citizens of allowing such a dangerous material near wildlife, the United Way claimed that the balloons were biodegradable.
The United Way affirmed that they had taken into account the environmental impact and that the balloons would degrade at the same rate as an oak leaf. How long is that, though?
In fact, oak leaves take at least four years to degrade in the natural environment. It took over a year for the balloons to biodegrade completely. That meant that Cleveland and neighboring areas were covered in plastic muck for a long time.
And let’s consider the helium that was released into the air as the balloons popped. It seems quite a waste because helium is considered a limited resource. The next question was, would United Way pay for the damage?
The Cost of the Mistake
The schoolchildren and others had collected $500,000 in donations for United Way. That money could have been spent on schools, caring for the homeless, or feeding those in need.
Now the funds would have to be used to compensate many people who suffered damage from the unmitigated disaster of Balloonfest 1986. Since then, the United Way no longer organizes these types of events. That’s all well and good, but its reputation was never the same after that event.
The Backlash Grows
The United Way was saddled with a great deal of embarrassment, distrust, and repair work after the Balloonfest 1986 disaster. They had paid dearly to plan and hold the event and now had to pay compensation and court costs. Needless to say, the funds they needed to spend on cleanup operations only added to the burden.
The damage to wildlife, water, and land caused by the balloons brought a strong backlash from environmental agencies. Not to mention the public, who, for the most part, began to distrust the agency altogether. For many years the United Way was still dealing with the fallout from the disaster.
No Trust for a Charitable Organization
Many had never heard of the United Way before Balloonfest 1986; after the event, everyone knew about it. Many people who might have donated to the fund declined to do so.
In United Way’s annual reports from the years surrounding Balloonfest, the text says that the organization distributed over $40 million in 1984, then uses general language about failing to meet its goals after that. And guess what? The Guinness 1988 book includes it as a world record “largest-ever mass balloon release” with 1,429,643 balloons launched.