Balloonfest ’86 has gone down in history as one of the most disastrous fundraising publicity stunts. In Cleveland, Ohio, United Way planned to release over a million balloons into the air, which would set a world record. The idea seemed fun and harmless—but in reality, it became the city’s worst nightmare.
Preparation for Balloonfest took six months. Workers constructed a large structure to hold the balloons; it was three stories high and the size of a city block. Inside, 2,500 volunteers got down to business, filling over 1.4 million balloons with helium. It was an overwhelming sight to behold, but nothing compared to the day of their fateful release.
On September 27, 1986, large crowds of people gathered to witness Balloonfest unfold. It was a spectacle right from the start. Clouds of balloons soared up and around buildings. Visually, it was an outstanding success—but a front of cool air and precipitation pushed them toward the ground before they had a chance to deflate. Chaos ensued.
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As balloons began wreaking havoc through the city and beyond, they became an environmental hazard and endangered human life. Not only did they clog waterways, but they also distracted drivers who had to swerve around them on the road. As a result, there were many traffic collisions, and a bulldozer was required to shovel away piles of balloons. But that wasn’t all.
On the day of the event, two fishermen were reported missing—Raymond Broderick and Bernard Sulzer. Though rescuers were able to locate their boat, the “asteroid field” of balloons made it difficult for them to reach the area. What’s more? All of the floating balloons made it impossible to see the fishermen in the water. The Coast Guard had no choice but to call off their search. Some time later, Broderick and Sulzer’s bodies washed up on shore.
A Tragic Failure
In the end, Balloonfest ’86 was a heartbreaking failure all around. Although it broke the record for the "largest ever mass balloon release,” the fundraiser lost money, and two men tragically lost their lives. It also made Guinness World Records change their standards. Because of the damage wrought, they no longer measure events that harm the environment.