27 September 1986
Balloonfest ’86 was intended to be a harmless fundraising publicity stunt that would help elevate Cleveland in the eyes of the American public as a happening city while raising money for the United Way, a nonprofit organisation that provides aid to other nonprofits.
The event – the release of 1.5 million helium-filled balloons in the hope of also breaking a world record – was scheduled for Saturday 27 September 1986.
Thousands of volunteers, including students, worked round the clock for hours leading up to the spectacle filling balloons with helium. The balloons were then corralled in mesh netting in a structure set up on the southwest quadrant of Cleveland’s Public Square.
Under normal weather conditions, helium-filled balloons stay aloft until they eventually deflate and fall back to earth. But the organisers of Balloonfest didn’t watch the weather forecast for the day of the scheduled spectacle or didn’t fully comprehend how changing weather could seriously affect their balloons.
Thousands of residents descended upon Public Square in Cleveland in the afternoon and at 1:50 PM, nearly 1.5 million colourful balloons were released, ascending and swirling around Terminal Tower. Unfortunately, shortly after the release, a high-pressure rain front rained down on Cleveland and the balloons, forcing several of them – still inflated – to land on Lake Erie.
The timing was terrible. Two local men – Raymond Broderick and Bernard Sulzer – had gone missing on the lake during a fishing excursion on the day before the event. The sea of multi-coloured balloons bobbing on the surface of the lake now made rescue efforts impossible for the coast guard, who couldn’t distinguish heads or life jackets among the multi-coloured mess. Two days later, the bodies of the fishermen washed up on the shore.
The balloons also caused traffic accidents and forced Burke Lakefront Airport to close a runway. The organisers and the city faced lawsuits seeking millions of dollars in damages and cost overruns put the event at a net loss.
It’s hard to measure how much environmental damage was caused by the release of so many latex balloons. They mysteriously disappeared from Lake Erie the day after the event and many of them ended up in Canada.