How Cleveland's 1986 Balloonfest Resulted In Two Deaths

File it under "It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time." In 1986, as WJW reports, Cleveland's chapter of the United Way hit upon the idea of releasing 1.5 million helium-filled balloons into the air in a sort of act of civic pride writ large. It was to serve a couple of purposes, including being an event for the hundred thousand or so people who descended on downtown Cleveland to witness it, and in a larger sense, to "put Cleveland back on the map," as a local news anchor described it at the time (per WJW). The city had been plagued, for decades, by the same type of problems that bedeviled other Midwestern cities at the time; notably, manufacturing had largely dried up, making the city a shadow of what it once was, according to Midstory. However, things were looking up at the time, and so, in someone's mind at least, releasing hundreds of thousands of balloons as a sort of metaphor for the city's fortunes made perfect sense.

Unfortunately, the thing was a disaster of epic proportions, causing the city's streets and waterways to be clogged by fully-inflated balloons that weren't going anywhere. What's more, the mass of balloons hindered search-and-rescue operations for two missing men, and they were later found dead.

Cleveland's Rising and Falling Fortunes

It's a script that can be applied to any number of American cities, particularly in the Midwest: get founded, grow in size exponentially over the decades, become a thriving metropolis, and then suffer the devastating loss of jobs and populace due to America's transition away from manufacturing. That script certainly applies to Cleveland, but there's more to it than that: Even when things are going well, Cleveland has a reputation for being an absolutely miserable place to live. Its weather is atrocious, its sports teams inept, and oh, there was that time that a polluted river caught fire. As The Travel explains, for a time Cleveland was, perhaps deservedly so, known as "The Mistake on the Lake."

By the mid-1980s, things were looking up — ever so slightly. The city had signed contracts to found the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in town, and the local United Way, perhaps inspired by a similar mass balloon event at Disneyland a year earlier, decided to angle for a place in the Guinness Book of World records with a launch of 1.5 million balloons (via WJW).

Failure To Think Things Through

These days, releasing helium balloons into the air — just one, to say nothing of hundreds of thousands of them — is considered bad for the environment, as the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies explains. When they fall back to the ground, they can cause pollution, become choking hazards for animals, and so on. Back in the 1980s, however, less attention was paid to environmental matters, and the prevailing belief at the time was that most helium balloons would ascent to a point in the atmosphere where they'd pop and disintegrate (via WJW). The United Way forged ahead and had volunteers inflate and store 1.5 million balloons.

Cleveland's weather would come back to bite the organizers in the butt. Storms were in the area, and so organizers decided to launch the balloons early. It was the wrong decision — because of the air currents, the balloons didn't rise steadily and peacefully into the atmosphere. Rather, they were blown up and down, this way and that, by the winds. "Balloons start like boiling in the air. You thought, 'Wow, we're gonna drown in these balloons,'" said local reporter David Moss. Soon, 1.5 million balloons were on the ground and on the surface of Lake Erie, in and around Cleveland.

The Aftermath

So choked with balloons were certain streets of Cleveland that they caused "a couple of car accidents," as The Plain Dealer described it. According to WIVB, the runways of a local airport were choked with balloons, and a bulldozer was brought in to clear the runways. An area horse breeder claimed that one of her prized Arabians was so spooked by the balloons that the animal suffered an injury.

The disaster also led, indirectly, to the deaths of two fishermen. As Gizmodo reports, two fishermen out on Lake Erie had been reported the previous day, and according to WJW, a Coast Guard search-and-rescue operation was underway to find the men — that is, until the machines were bedeviled by the balloons. "[A Coast Guard pilot] said it was like flying through an asteroid belt, you just couldn't see. And the balloons on the water looked like heads, and the men weren't found until several days after the balloons," said local reporter Neil Zurcher.

Needless to say, the entire thing spurned lawsuits, was a huge money-waster for the United Way and the city (to say nothing of the environmental damage), and future mass balloon releases in Cleveland were called off — for good.