Thursday, March 2, 2017

Balloonfest '86: This Is Why You Should Never Release 1.5 Million Balloons At Once

In 1986, organizers with United Way of Cleveland thought they had the perfect idea to generate a little publicity and create a beautiful spectacle in the process. With a crowd of volunteers working all hours, they filled 1.5 million helium balloons, and released them all at once. Unfortunately, they had no idea the terrible consequences they would unleash by doing so, and their tragic mistake led to the deaths of two people and millions of dollars in damages through lawsuits.

It all began with the awesome, but fundamentally disastrous, goal of setting the world record for the most balloons launched at once. Anaheim, which released 1.2 million balloons the year before, was the previous champion.

On Sept. 27, thousands of volunteers worked for hours filling balloons with helium under a huge tent near Cleveland's Public Square. After 1.5 million balloons were inflated, the net was released and a surreal-looking balloon cloud started to rise over downtown, as seen in this footage.



Photos of Balloonfest '86 were pretty incredible — reds, blues and yellows framed the sky like large-scale confetti. But what was intended to be a harmless fundraising stunt, ultimately led to two deaths, multiple lawsuits and general chaos.

Just after the balloons were released at around 1:50 p.m., a storm began to move in from the Great Lakes. Strong winds pushed the balloons down over the city and to the ground, creating chaos on roadways and shutting down the runway at a local airport.

As the balloons touched down on a pasture in Medina County, several prize-winning horses were spooked and permanently injured. The owner later sued for $100,000.

The Coast Guard said the "asteroid field" of balloons also clogged the skies that day, stalling a helicopter search for two missing boaters. Tragically, the men died when searchers were unable to reach their overturned boat, Cleveland.com reports. When the Coast Guard crew finally could lift off, they said they had trouble differentiating the balloons covering the surface of the water from the missing men.

In the days that followed, even Canadians reported impacts from the event, as deflated (and apparently biodegradable) balloons washed up on the Canadian side of Lake Erie.

While the sight of 1.5 million balloons being released must have been amazing to see, the outcome was far from pleasant. Weather.com meteorologist Nick Wiltgen said a mistake like this probably wouldn't happen today, especially with weather data on smartphones and a much better understanding of the atmosphere's behavior.

(Photo: Bettmann/Corbis)

(Photo: Thom Sheridan)

(Photo: Thom Sheridan)

(Photo: Thom Sheridan)

(Photo: Thom Sheridan)

(Photo: Thom Sheridan)

(Photo: Thom Sheridan)

(Photo: Thom Sheridan)

(Photo: Dave Andersen, cleveland.com)

(Photo: Dave Andersen, cleveland.com)

(Photo: Plain Dealer photography staff)

(Photo: Dave Andersen, cleveland.com)

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