Man Releases 1.5 Million Balloons In Cleveland, Unleashes Nightmare
YouTube / The Atlantic

Man Releases 1.5 Million Balloons In Cleveland, Unleashes Nightmare

Johan Brown

How would this monstrosity look once they release it? He stepped back to admire his creation. More than a million shiny balloons thrashed against the tarp as though trying to escape. They were about to put weeks of planning and hard work to the test. Cleveland and its residents would never have been prepared for the catastrophe that day.

In Cleveland's Public Square, crowds of spectators had gathered to witness the historic event. They bumped for a spot and crammed into the space amid the flashing cameras and happy faces. To ensure their safety, officials in helicopters patrolled the area. At last, they were ready. But were they prepared to unleash the worst nightmare this town will ever see?

The Guinness Book of World Records

Unsplash / Al Soot

It was 1986. The Challenger Explosion, Hands Across America, and Halley's Comet all made headlines at the time. The Soviets were still trying to hide the Chernobyl disaster. Oprah Winfrey's media empire was just starting, and MTV was still airing music videos.

The Guinness Book of World Records kindled world record fever throughout the globe as they celebrated their thirtieth anniversary. Naturally, Cleveland wanted to join the world record setters and make history as well. And they would, but not in the manner they had envisioned.

Shine The Spotlight Down

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The city of Cleveland was desperate to get in on the hype surrounding world records, and they had the perfect vehicle to put them in the spotlight. It arrived in the form of The United Way of Greater Cleveland, a branch of the greater United Way brand.

The primary objectives of this organization were to aid impoverished communities and promote social justice in the US. Donations from the general public helped the United Way do this. And when they heard that the city planned to break a world record, they realized it was a chance to raise a serious amount of money. They never expected the backlash that would unfold.

Lake Eerie

Keep this in mind: Lake Erie is the fourth-largest lake of North America's five Great Lakes and acts as the country's natural border with Canada.

This is a vital clue that explains how everything went wrong. Can you guess why?

Aiming For The Best

New York Daily News

At the time, Cleveland was after the world record that Disneyland held. It wouldn't be an easy task, and everyone involved knew that. At that point, the city of Cleveland and the United Way enlisted the help of a small Los Angeles-based company called Balloonart by Treb.

Treb Heining, a well-known balloon artist who started his career at Disneyland when he was 15 years old, owned the business. Despite the tragedy of Balloonfest 1986, Treb's work has since gone on to be displayed at super bowls, Academy Award ceremonies, and presidential inaugurations.

A Bright Balloon Cloud

YouTube / SMFDR Official

It's a popular misconception that the balloons from the Balloonfest of '86 were handed out to the spectators before being set free. In the shadow of the Terminal Tower, a building the size of a city block hosted the helium-filled balloons.

Volunteers filled the balloons for several hours. Treb had initially intended for the balloons to total 2 million, but the volunteers' blistering fingers and trembling hands forced the team to stop at 1.5 million. They were finally ready. But nobody was prepared for what they were about to set free.

Fickle Hand Of Fate

YouTube / The Atlantic

How would inflating 1.5 million balloons help the United Way raise money? Well, every schoolchild was given the task of selling sponsorships. You would get two balloons added to the extravagant stunt by donating one dollar. And people, wanting to be a part of the hype, donated in droves.

Since The Unite Way had such a large sum of money raised for the movement, they should have had enough money to carry out their plan without a problem. But fate had another plan that would leave everyone utterly blindsided.

A Sign

Pexels / Laurissa Booyse

Cleveland and Treb tried to pick the best day and time to set the balloons free, but the weather always had a mind of its own. It was a bright, sunny morning, but gray clouds lingered on the horizon and slowly made their way toward Cleveland.

Some people noticed, but most brushed it off. Looking back, that might have been their only chance to avoid this disaster.

A Storm Rolling In

Pexels / Alexey Demidov

As if nature was making every effort to prevent the disaster that was about to rock the world, the storm clouds started to roll over Cleveland. But with the looming storm came something nobody expected.

The sea blew in an icy chill, and a cold front rolled in, which would later freeze and burst the balloons. It seemed like circumstances beyond anyone's control were trying to prevent the balloons from being released. The city of Cleveland should have listened to the apparent warning signs.

What Happens To Balloons In The Sky?

Pexels / Irina Iriser

When a helium-filled balloon is released into the sky, it usually floats and gradually deflates.

Then it comes back down to earth. This was not the case in Cleveland, and you'll discover why.

Rain And Balloons Don't Mix

Pixabay / Adam Webb

When a balloon is struck by cold air and rain, it is pushed down to earth while still inflated.

This gave rise to the absolute insanity that occurred in Cleveland.

A Bad Idea

YouTube / The Atlantic

Treb's team warned him repeatedly that it was not a good idea to release the balloons in those weather conditions. But Treb wouldn't give up that easily.

How could anyone cancel the world's largest balloon event after spending so much time planning it?

Almost Cancelled

The Balloonfest was rumored to be on the verge of being canceled just minutes before the balloons were released.

However, as you can see, it was simply too late to waste all of this. What could potentially go wrong?

The Time Arrived

YouTube / The Atlantic

Despite all these issues, Balloonfest '86 was set to begin. To reduce the storm's effect on the event, Tred let the balloons go ahead of schedule.

Needless to say, this failed, and you'll soon learn why. The time finally came to let the balloons go.

Cheers And Applause

Tred was determined to have his moment and launched the balloons early to beat the storm. He gave the go-ahead, and the clear tarp that held the helium-filled balloons in place was stripped away. Suddenly, 1,429,643  balloons were released into the world.

The balloons slowly rose into the sky, forming a gigantic mass that mushroomed around the Terminal Tower and scattered into the skies above Cleveland like bright confetti. From the ground, the crowd erupted into cheers and applause. They hollered and whooped at the magnificent sight above, oblivious to their terrible mistake.

A Spectacular View

The view was undoubtedly breathtaking. Keep in mind that 1,429,643 balloons were released simultaneously into the sky.

The sight was magnificent, but no one could have readied Cleveland for what would happen next.

How Things Went Wrong

cleveland com

Do you remember where Cleveland is? Do you remember the massive storm and how the wind, rain, and cool air affected the balloons?

What you're about to witness entirely exemplifies how this man unleashed a nightmare in Cleveland.

A Dreadful Day

cleveland com

Cleveland recalls that day with dread. Clearly, this event would mark a significant turning point in Cleveland's history.

Just imagine how much Cleveland had to spend to fix the damage the incident caused. Wait until you see the aftermath.

Hazard Above

YouTube / The Atlantic

The police officers flying above the scene had kept a safe distance since they believed the balloons would rise in a single column. They flew blind when the wind rose and began whirling the mass of floating orbs around,  scattering them downwind.

Thankfully, the officials had specialized training for flying in challenging weather. Although they were able to steer their helicopters clear of the mushroom cloud above Cleveland, the mayhem that the balloon release was about to unleash was just getting started.

Everything Is Going

The wind typically disperses helium-filled balloons as they rise toward the stratosphere. But the peculiar circumstances that were developing were about to become very troublesome. The balloons were scattered over a larger area due to the cold front passing through Cleveland that morning. But this wasn't the only issue that hadn't been addressed.

Under normal circumstances, balloons will ascend to great heights before beginning to expand as the air pressure around them decreases. This stretching of the already thin plastic causes them to explode. The plastic fragments then fall back to the ground. That was not the case on that particular day.

Laws Of Physics

The Guardian

The crew, led by Treng Heining, had made a major error in judgment. "What goes up must come down" is a fundamental and universal law they had failed to consider. The balloons did precisely that, following the rules of basic physics.

The balloons began to descend upon Cleveland while they were still intact. And not just Cleveland. They plunged to the ground and landed in the streets, lakes, rivers, and farmlands. Most of them journeyed to Canada, where they covered Lake Erie with a plague of unnerving bobbing plastic. However, the worst of the effects was yet to come.

Disaster Rains Down

YouTube / The Atlantic

Canadians and locals started flooding the authorities with complaints. Everyone was outraged and shocked that environmental safety regulations had approved such a terrible idea. Numerous animals were killed by the choking hazards that riddled the landscape. They were not, however, the only victims.

Masses of intact balloons rained down on neighboring motorists, wreaking havoc on the roads and causing accidents. The runway at Burke Lakefront Airport was about to experience even more turmoil.

Airport Declares Emergency

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The runway had been rendered entirely unsafe to use by the still-intact mass of balloons that had made their way onto it. Planes couldn't land on the landing strip, and the airport announced an emergency and closed the runway. For a whole hour, no planes could leave or enter the airport.

Numerous flights were postponed, canceled, or redirected. But the balloons weren't done with their path of carnage yet. The balloons were about to wreak havoc at a nearby stable of prized racehorses.

Tragic Aftermath

Pexels / Aliaksei Semirski

The horses went into a frenzy after seeing the colorful orbs flying toward them. Their eyes and nostrils grew wide with fear. They started to stampede. They blindly slammed into one another as they desperately tried to escape.

The horses were unfit for competitions since they had injured themselves during the incident. Furious and seeking justice, their owner decided to take legal action and sue United Way for damages. The tragic consequences of what was supposed to be a lighthearted stunt didn't stop there.

Fishermen Gone Missing

YouTube / The Atlantic

Amidst the fate of the racehorses and numerous wild animals, the chaos of travel delays, and car accidents, the Balloonfest '86 also claimed two people's lives. Authorities at Lake Erie searched for two men on the same day as the balloon release.

The men were reported missing when their overturned, wrecked boat was discovered near the coast. The only thing left of the two fishermen was a fishing rod and a cap. The coastguards were doing their best to search the lake, but there was one issue.

Impossible To Find

YouTube / The Atlantic

Helicopters searched the vicinity, but the thousands of balloons battered by rain wound up in Lake Erie. It was impossible to conduct a simple search-and-rescue operation due to many bobbing plastic balloons covering the entire lake's surface.

Spotting an orange life jacket among the dense cluster of orange balloons was like looking for a needle in a haystack. Sadly, when the men washed ashore two days later, it was too late to save them. It doesn't end there.

They Didn't Think Ahead

YouTube / The Atlantic

While the balloon release had caused unanticipated destruction and chaos, the aftermath was just as devastating. To put it simply, the Balloonfest of '86 was a nightmare. According to the United Way, the balloons were allegedly biodegradable, but were they really?

The United Way proudly claimed that they had considered the environmental consequences of releasing 1.5 million plastic balloons into the world; they claimed that these balloons would start to break down at a rate roughly equivalent to that of an oak leaf. But how long does that take?

The Impact On The Environment

YouTube / The Atlantic

It can take oak leaves at least four years to start decomposing naturally. And the balloons that were set free on that day would be remembered as a total disaster. It took one year for them to biodegrade completely, covering Cleveland and surrounding areas in millions of soggy plastic particles.

Helium was also used to inflate the balloons at Balloonfest '86. However, no research was done to determine what happens when such a large quantity of helium is released into the atmosphere. Furthermore, helium is currently regarded as a limited resource. Would the United Way pay for their mistakes, though?

An Expensive PR Stunt

YouTube / The Atlantic

Half a million dollars in donations were spent on the complete and total failure of a PR stunt. The fact that this money could have been used to build a school or a shelter for the homeless is not lost on the city of Cleveland.

Following the devastation of Balloonfest '86, The United Way has changed its method of doing things. They no longer stage massive and trivial publicity stunts. Needless to say, the organization's reputation suffered greatly as a result of Balloonfest '86.

Cleaning Up Their Mess

YouTube / News 5 Cleveland

Between the costs of organizing and hosting the event and the lawsuits that followed, The United Way made little to no money from Balloonfest '86. They then had to deal with massive cleanup operations to repair some of the damage to the environment they had caused.

The United Way's stunt also drew a lot of criticism, both from the general public and from environmental organizations. The old saying "all publicity is good publicity" did not apply to the catastrophic Balloonfest '86. And the organization is still reeling from the consequences.

Losing Public Trust

Thanks to the infamous Balloonfest, many who had never known of The United Way were familiar with their name. However, people were much less likely to donate their hard-earned money to a group known for its environmental pollution.

A look at the company's 1980s financial results states: "United Way disbursed more than $40 million to local organizations in Cleveland in 1984 but failed to fulfill many annual targets in the mid-1980s." This was their way of glossing over the incident. The Guinness Book of World Records of 1988 recognizes the event as the "largest-ever mass balloon release" the world has ever seen, with 1,429,643 balloons released.