A fundraising event in Cleveland, Ohio aimed to break the world record for the most latex helium balloons ever launched, but it quickly became a majestic mess.
In 1985, Disneyland celebrated their 30th anniversary by setting a world record for the most helium balloons ever released simultaneously. The following year, the United Way set out to beat that record, organizing Balloonfest ’86 – a fundraising event that would launch 1.5 million latex helium balloons from the streets of downtown Cleveland.
Why Cleveland? The city had recently cleaned up its not-so-spotless reputation and the marketer from United Way that came up with the entire idea to promote the organization was also using it to try to rebrand Cleveland as a “cool town.”
Project manager Tom Holowach (who did the Disneyland event) spent half the year and hundreds of thousands of funding dollars to plan the Balloonfest ’86, even moving to Cleveland temporarily while they organized. Finally, on the eve of launch day, September 26, 1986 in Public Square, it was time to begin the execution.
Thousands of workers
It took 2,500 volunteers, most all from area high school bands, to work through the night and into the next morning to fill and corral 1.5 million latex helium balloons. (It was originally 2 million, but was reduced due to funding issues.)
Volunteers sat at folding chair workstations: inflators zip tied to milk crates, hooked up to soldered copper pipes that ran from a semi-truck full of helium. Temporary lighting was set up, music blasted through speakers to help keep people awake, and meals and bathrooms were provided.
A massive, one-piece cargo net the size of a full city block, which was originally designed for use with the Space Shuttle, served as the ceiling over the huge scaffolding structure. It would rise a little higher with each balloon that was filled and released, until the entire thing looked like a ready-to-burst jiffy pop full of gumballs.
The scaffolding was specifically built for more than just housing the work area. With the cargo net anchored to the framework, the scaffolding had to weigh at least 20 tons or there would not have been enough counter weight to keep the 1.5 million latex helium balloons from lifting the structure and dragging it through the city.
The entire operation was nearly abandoned at the last minute when a thunderstorm blew through town in the middle of the night, producing torrential rain and winds over 60 mph. Fortunately, or unfortunately, it moved out quickly, leaving minimal structural damage and causing only minor balloon loss. The event was still on.
Check out this local news update assessing the damage immediately following the storm:
The big launch
Another weather front was approaching on the afternoon of of the launch. After considering the consequences of a delay, the organizers decided to release the balloons, but would do so 10 minutes earlier than planned in an effort to beat the storm.
At 1:50pm, just under 1.5 million latex helium balloons were set free from in front of the Terminal Tower. People watched in awe as an impossible swarm of balloons blocked out entire buildings before taking over the city sky.
The images were spectacular. The Guinness world record belonged to Cleveland. And then things went south.
One big problem after another
The front moved in quickly and the latex helium balloons didn’t fare well the cold air and rain. Strong winds pushed them north out over the lake, while the rain battered many back down to the water and ground.
So many balloons took over the airspace that the runway at nearby Burke Lakefront Airport had to be shut down. (It should be noted that Cleveland Police and Fire signed off on the plans and the organizers were in contact with the FAA throughout the entire project.)
The Coast Guard was searching for Raymond Broderick and Bernard Sulzer, a pair of fishermen whose boat capsized near the Edgewater Park breakwall. There were so many balloons in the air that the pilots of the helicopter later said that it was like trying to navigate through an asteroid field.
Even when they were able to find some airspace, it became a “Where’s Waldo” of finding a head amongst the similarly sized blanket of balloons bobbing on the water and holding in the air. The search was ultimately called off.
Louise Nowakowski said that latex helium balloons falling on her Medina farm (40 miles south of the launch) spooked her prized Arabian horse, causing permanent injuries to the animal after it jumped on a fence.
Both Nowakowski and the wife of Raymond Broderick sued the United Way for $100,000 and $3.2 million, respectively. The cases settled out of court for undisclosed amounts.
Multiple traffic accidents were also reported as drivers swerved out of the way of falling balloons or were distracted by the scene unfolding above them.
Canadian residents later complained after discovering thousands of latex helium balloons scattered across the shorelines of Rondeau Provincial Park in Ontario.
Biggest and last
Balloonfest ’86 gained national coverage, but unfortunately it became a story of how good intentions can quickly turn into a mess. Cleveland would become the last city to hold the Guinness world record for the most latex helium balloons released at one time. Guinness has since retired the category and no longer prints it in its books.