Up, Up, and Awry: Cleveland's Disastrous 1986 Balloonfest

It was 1986 and employees of the United Way of Cleveland -- who were fed up with their city's rather lackluster reputation -- decided that the best way to draw positive publicity would be to release 1.5 million balloons in the hopes of also breaking a world record. What could possibly go wrong?

Dubbed Balloonfest '86, it 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 organization that provides aid to other nonprofits throughout the community.

The event was scheduled for September 27, 1986 (a Saturday, so that everyone could watch) with the logistics being coordinated by Balloonart by Treb of Los Angeles. The company's founder, Treb "the Balloon Man" Heining, had made a living out of organizing balloon drops for public events -- everything from presidential nominations to the Super Bowl. Just a year prior to Balloonfest '86, he had successfully released one million balloons over Disneyland in honor of the park's 30th anniversary.

Thousands of volunteers, including students, worked round the clock for hours leading up to the spectacle filling balloons with helium. The balloons were corralled in mesh netting in a structure set up on the southwest quadrant of Cleveland's Public Square.

Under normal weather conditions, helium-filled latex balloons will stay aloft until they eventually deflate and fall back to earth (or, according to some experts, will shatter into shards once they reach a height of approximately ten kilometers; no one knows for sure because no one has witnessed it.)

But apparently the organizers of Balloonfest -- despite telling the local news how much planning went into this event -- didn't watch the weather forecast for the day of the scheduled spectacle, or they didn't fully comprehend how changing weather could seriously affect their balloons.

Thousands of residents descended upon Public Square where they were interviewed by Big Chuck and Lil' John, a comedy duo who also hosted their own late-night horror movie show on a local Cleveland television station.

As a high pressure rain front system started advancing towards the city in the afternoon of September 27, organizers decided to release the balloons early. At 1:50 PM, nearly 1.5 million colorful balloons were freed from their mesh prison, ascending and swirling around Terminal Tower looking like the spilled contents of a 1980s Contac capsule.

Unfortunately, Cleveland was about to live up to one of its negative nicknames as "the mistake on the lake." Shortly after lift off the dark clouds looming over the city opened up, raining down on the balloons and forcing several of them to land on Lake Erie. The timing couldn't have been worse. The day before the event, two local men went missing on the lake during a fishing excursion. The plethora of multi-colored balloons bopping along the water made rescue efforts impossible for the coast guard, who couldn't distinguish any heads or life jackets among the multi-colored mess. Two days later, the bodies of the fishermen washed up on the shore.

And there were other dire consequences. The balloons caused traffic accidents, forced Burke Lakefront Airport to close a runway, and several horses to spook when some of them landed in their pasture. There were at least two lawsuits brought against the United Way of Cleveland as a result of their event: one by the widow of one of the deceased fishermen, and the other by the horses' owner.

Furthermore, it's hard to measure how much damage was done to the environment by the release of so many latex balloons. They mysteriously disappeared from Lake Erie the day after the event and if someone didn't retrieve them, that can only mean they got absorbed into the body of water. Many of the 1.5 million balloons ended up blowing north into Canada.

But hey, at least Cleveland did get listed in the 1988 edition of the Guinness Book Of World Records for the largest ever mass balloon release. That record was broken in 1994 when 1.7 million balloons were released over Wiltshire, England.

I think it's best if they just stick with their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Drew Carey, and LeBron James as their claims to fame.

Here's a look back at the doomed affair as compiled by The Atlantic:


  1. Thanks for a very interesting article! I had never heard of this.
    This is the kinda stuff I check out this blog for.
    It made me think about a guy I knew a long time ago who was from Cleveland. When he talked about his city he just grinned. Apparently it's an interesting place.


    1. Thanks, M.P...I'd never heard of it either until I saw a random video on YouTube. I guess we can see why no one from Cleveland would want to talk about it.


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