A Lot Of Balloons
“Imagine unleashing a horde of balloons on the public?” He thought as he smiled and took a step back, his work was beautiful. Over a million balloons were all floating together in the tarp, barely being contained. He knew that all of the time and effort he had put into his project came to this moment. But he could never have foreseen what would happen to his town once it was set free.
Most of Cleveland gathered around to watch this spectacle. The Public Square was packed elbow to elbow with people snapping pictures and awaiting the big moment. Even helicopters circled above to get a better view of everything. But they couldn’t have been prepared for what came next.
In 1986 there were many things going on, Oprah had only just started her TV empire, MTV was playing music videos, and the Chernobyl disaster had just happened. There were many momentous events happening and everyone was caught up in the craze.
It was also The Guinness Book of World Record’s 30th anniversary. People all over the world wanted to join in on the record-breaking and Cleveland was no different. Soon, they would be remembered, but not how they had imagined.
Getting In On The Action
Cleveland was hoping to be immortalized in The Guinness Book of World Records and they knew just how to achieve it. Greater Cleveland’s United Way is part of the greater United Way brand.
The organization’s aim was to aid in impoverished groups and improve social justice. They rely mostly on donations and when they found out that Cleveland wanted to break a world record they knew this would be a great way to raise donations. But they didn’t see the flaw in their plan.
Canada, Lake Erie, and Cleveland
Lake Erie is situated between the United States and Canada. Of the five Great Lakes, it’s the fourth largest. This means that it’s a pretty big distance from end to end.
This is a hint as to what happened and why everything went horribly wrong. Cleveland is situated right by the shore of the lake. Can you see what the problem was?
in 1986, Disneyland currently held the record that Cleveland had their eye on. They knew it would be no easy task. So when Cleveland and The United Way got together they knew they’d need the help of Balloonart by Treb, A company based out of Los Angeles.
Tred Heining was the owner of the company and many people knew him for his balloon art when he was picked up by Disneyland at age 15. Heining was no small fry, his art had been seen at Superbowls, Academy Awards, and even presidential inaugurations. But would Balloonfest change the way people looked at him?
A lot of people falsely believe that at Balloonfest citizens took part and released balloons by hand. What was actually the case was that the balloons were housed in a huge structure that cast a dark shadow over the Public Square.
Residents of Cleveland volunteered to fill the balloons, this process took hours and 2 million people pitched up to help. So once the number of balloons reached 1.5 balloons they decided that it was more than enough. No one understood the repercussions that the event would have.
A PR Stunt Gone Wrong
You might be wondering how this event would raise money for The United Way? Schoolchildren were selling sponsorships. A dollar worth of sponsorships meant that two more balloons would be filled for the project. It was something fun, everybody thought, so they all bought donations.
They made a monumental amount of money, enough that performing the stunt would be a cake-walk. But the universe had other plans that would have everyone reeling in disbelief.
The organizers had planned to pull the stunt off on a windless, sunny day. But when the day came everyone could see clouds rolling in towards the city. They ominously sat on the horizon.
This was their chance to call it off, perhaps it was a sign from the universe. But nobody paid it any mind and they went forward with things.
As they persevered to start Balloonfest, the clouds seemed to react by rolling in with reinforcements. Mother nature wouldn’t stand for what was about to happen. But the darkening clouds had a reaction that no one was expecting.
The air got icy and a cold front starting rolling in. This would pop the balloons and it seemed that against everything. fate didn’t want this event to happen. Everyone should have seen the signs.
Where Do Balloons Go?
Once someone releases a helium balloon into the atmosphere, it will float upwards and maintain its altitude until the helium escapes. This is where the flaw in the plan was.
So no big deal, they’d come right back down. But something else happened at Balloonfest that was a huge problem and no one had the foresight to see it coming.
Balloons And Rain Is A Really Bad Mix
When a balloon is hit by cool air and rain, is pushed towards the ground while being still inflated.
This results in the absolute madness that happened in Cleveland.
His Team Told Him Not To Do It
Treb, was repeatedly warned by his team that releasing the balloons with these weather conditions would potentially be a bad idea. But, Treb wouldn’t back off that easily.
If you’d spent all this time preparing the biggest balloon event in the world, would you just call it off?
The Balloonfest Almost Cancelled
There is a rumor that Balloonfest was very close to being canceled minutes before they let the balloons free.
But, as you can see, it was too late to let all of this go to waste. What could possibly go wrong?
It Finally Happened
After all these complications, Balloonfest ’86 was about to begin. Tred released the balloons earlier than planned to minimize the impact the storm would have on the event.
There’s no need to say that this didn’t work and now you’ll see why. It was time to release the balloons.
While The World Watched
Tred, determined to have his moment, decided that they would have to release the balloons early to get ahead of the storm. He gave the all-clear and the clear tarps holding the helium-filled balloons were pulled away, unleashing 1,429,643 balloons on the world.
The balloons entered the sky slowly and mushroomed around the Terminal Tower like a hulking mass, littering the sky above Cleveland like-colored confetti. Cheers and applause erupted from the crowd on the ground, all whooping and hollering at the spectacular sight above, unaware that they had all made a terrible mistake.
The View Was Spectacular But…
Without a doubt, the scenery was spectacular. Remember that there were 1,429,643 balloons being released in the sky at the same time.
Even though the view was impressive, no one could have prepared Cleveland for what happened after that moment.
Here’s How Everything Went Wrong
Remember Cleveland’s location? Remember the huge storm and how balloons react with cool air, wind, and rain?
What you’re going to see next totally illustrates how this man unleashed a nightmare in Cleveland.
A Turning Point In Cleveland’s History
Cleveland remembers that day with terror. It was apparent that this event would be a turning point in Cleveland’s history.
Only imagine how much money would Cleveland have to pay because of the destruction that was caused by the event. Wait until you see the aftermath.
The policemen flying above the event had kept their distance, anticipating the balloons to rise like a single column. But when the wind picked up, buffeting the mass of floating orbs about and scattering them downwind, they were flying blind.
Thankfully, the officials were specially trained to fly in difficult conditions. They managed to navigate their helicopters out of the mushroom cloud above Cleveland, but the trouble that the balloon release was about to cause was only just beginning.
A Perfect Storm
When helium-filled balloons rise into the stratosphere, they are usually scattered by the wind. But the unusual circumstances that were unfolding were about to become extremely problematic. The cold front that was blowing into Cleveland that morning caused the balloons to be spread over a wider area. But this wasn’t the only problem nobody had accounted for.
In normal conditions, balloons will soar high into the sky and then begin to expand as the air pressure around them reduces. This expansion stretches the already thin plastic and they explode. Then, the plastic remnants fall back down to the ground. But on that day, that was not what happened.
An Unexpected Result
Treng Heining and his team had made a monumental miscalculation. They had failed to consider a fundamental and universal law: what goes up must come down. The balloons, obeying the laws of basic physics, did just that.
The balloons, still intact, began to rain down on Cleveland. But not only Cleveland. They plummeted down into the streets, into the rivers and lakes, and into the farmlands. Most of them ended up all the way in Canada, where they littered Lake Erie like a blight of eerily bobbing plastic. But the worst of the fallout was still to come.
Canadians and residents in surrounding areas began to send complaints in droves. Everyone was angry and astounded that such a destructive idea had passed environmental safety checks. Countless animals fell victim to the choking hazards that littered the landscape. But they weren’t the only victims.
Travelers on roads nearby were pummeled with masses of intact balloons, wreaking havoc on the motorways and causing accidents. But, even more chaos was about to ensue nearby, at the runway at the Burke Lakefront Airport.
They Shut Down The Airport
The still-intact mass of balloons had made their way onto the runway, rendering it completely unsafe for use. Planes couldn’t land on the landing strip, and the airport declared an emergency and shut down the runway. No planes could leave or enter the airport for an hour.
Many flights were canceled, delayed, or diverted. But the balloons hadn’t completed their path of destruction yet. In a nearby stable of prized racehorses, the balloons were about to cause absolute mayhem.
The horses, seeing the falling colorful orbs descending upon them, went into a frenzy. With nostrils and eyes wide, they were Spooked and terrified. They began to stampede. Desperate to escape, they plowed into one another blindly.
The racehorses injured themselves and were unfit to compete after the incident. Their owner, furious and wanting justice, decided to take action and sued United Way for the damages. But the tragic aftermath of what was supposed to be a frivolous stunt didn’t end there.
And yet, amid the fate of the racehorses and the countless wild animals, the chaos of the travel delays and the motor vehicle accidents, the Balloonfest ’86 also claimed two human lives. That very same day of the balloon release, officials at Lake Erie were searching for two men.
The men had been reported as missing after their boat had been found close to shore, capsized and battered. Inside was a fishing rod and a fisherman’s cap – all that remained of the two fishermen. The coast guards were trawling the lake as best they could, but there was one problem.
An Impossible Task
Helicopters searched the area, but the thousands of balloons that had been pummeled by rain ended up in Lake Erie. All the bobbing plastic balloons that littered the surface of the entire lake made what would have been a straightforward search-and-rescue mission impossible.
Trying to identify an orange life jacket among the teeming mass of orange balloons was like looking for a needle in a haystack. The men were eventually found two days later when they washed ashore, but they were, sadly, deceased. But, there’s more.
They Hadn’t Thought It Through
Even though the balloon release had wreaked such unforeseen chaos and destruction, the aftermath was equally devastating – in short, the Balloonfest of ’86 was a nightmare. The United Way claimed that the balloons were biodegradable, but were they really?
The United Way proudly stated that they had considered the environmental impact of releasing 1.5 million plastic balloons into the world – they said that these balloons would begin to degrade at about the same rate as an oak leaf does. But how long does that take, exactly?
Oak leaves can take at least four years to begin to break down naturally. And the balloons that were released on that day would go down in history as an unmitigated disaster. It took a year for them to biodegrade fully, leaving Cleveland and nearby regions covered in millions of soggy plastic particles.
The balloons of Balloonfest ‘86 were also filled with helium to make them rise. But there have been no studies as to what happens when such a large amount of helium is released into the atmosphere. Not only that, but now helium is considered a limited resource. But would The United Way pay for their huge mistakes?
An Expensive Mistake
The entire, utter failure of a PR stunt cost half a million dollars in donations. It’s not lost on the city of Cleveland that this money could have gone toward something meaningful, such as building a school or a shelter for the homeless.
After the massive disaster of Balloonfest ’86, The United Way has changed the way they do things. They no longer organize enormous and frivolous publicity stunts. Needless to say, the organization’s reputation was severely damaged after Balloonfest ’86.
Between the cost involved to organize and hold the event and the lawsuits they faced in its wake, The United Way made very little money from Balloonfest ’86. Then, they had to handle the massive cleanup operations to try and undo some of the environmental damage they had caused.
The United Way’s stunt also earned them a lot of backlash — from the public and from environmental agencies. The common adage “all publicity is good publicity” didn’t apply to the catastrophe that was Balloonfest ’86. And the organization is still dealing with the fallout.
People who had never heard of The United Way now knew who they were, thanks to the infamous Balloonfest. But people were far less inclined to donate their hard-earned cash to an organization that is notorious for polluting the environment.
A quick look at the company’s earnings from the 1980s simply tries to sweep the incident under the rug, stating: “United Way distributed more than $40 million to local agencies in Cleveland in 1984 but failed to meet several annual goals of the mid-1980s.” And all for what? The 1988 copy of The Guinness Book of World Records recognizes the event as a world record “largest-ever mass balloon release”, with 1,429,643 balloons launched.