The Balloon Fest ’86: When the Cleveland show became a tragedy | by The Mystery Writer | June 2022

The unfortunate but historic day when 1.5 million balloons killed two innocent men.

Terminal Tower, Downtown Cleveland, Ohio | Photo credits : forgotten history

InIn 1986, the Cleveland chapter of United Way staged a publicity stunt that involved tossing 1.5 million balloons into the air. Although the event immediately caught the attention of the media and set the world record as soon as the balloons flew, the triumph quickly turned into a disaster.

How and why was this event organised? What turned it into a disaster the moment it started?

The balloons launched around the Terminal Tower | Photo credits : Day to day story

Before the Balloonfest’86 in Cleveland, Ohio, on its 30th anniversary, Disneyland had successfully marked its entry into the Guinness Book of World Records. They were able to do this by releasing 1.2 million helium balloons and set a world record by working with the city of Anaheim.

Therefore, the people of Cleveland thought they too could do something bigger and better to taste the glory of breaking a world record. A non-profit fundraising organization, United Way of Cleveland, started this program on the assumption that it was to become a spectacle moment in history.

In preparation for the event, a Los Angeles-based company, Balloonart by Treb, coordinated their efforts for six months. Students also volunteered to sell sponsorships to benefit Centraide.

For days and months, Cleveland waited for the morning of September 27, 1986, when a monumental opportunity would occur.

People filling the balloons in the public square | Photo credits : Fox 8

When the day arrived, more than 100,000 people gathered at Public plaza in downtown Cleveland to fill the balloons before it is launched. Using a one-piece netting, the balloons were stacked up to three stories, protected from the wind. As a result, it took thousands of students and volunteers many hours to inflate nearly 1.5 million helium balloons.

The long-awaited moment had finally arrived, and at 1:50 p.m. organizers launched a series of balloons into the air, covering the Cleveland skies in a rainbow of colors. It was a sight to behold.

The whole downtown was ecstatic, breaking Disneyland’s world record and finally a glorious moment of celebration for Cleveland. “It was amazing. It was a magnificent spectacle, people were applauding and everyone was happy. says John Rinaldia Balloon Fest live streamer.

It looked like the launch was obviously successful. However, not all the gold you see is shimmering; within minutes, fame became a calamity.

After releasing the balloons | Photo credits : Atlantic

Initially, it was thought that after staying in the air for a while, the balloons would gradually deflate and eventually come down to earth. Unfortunately, that is not what happened. In all worst-case scenarios, the absolute worst happened that day.

The weather was not in Cleveland’s favor, and with a stormy whim, the helium balloons were pushed back to earth, still inflated. “After looking at the weather conditions that were present before the balloon was launched, there was no way they should have launched these balloons,” said a meteorologist, Scott Sabol.

Nevertheless, as the mind-boggling amount of balloons rushed towards the earth, it created an unexpected panic. It was as if everyone was going to drown in these balloons, leaving no trace of their existence. Thus, the joy lasted only a time, and the anguish of the disaster seized the city.

The balloons caused a big traffic jam on the nearby road, causing casualties and causing terror. Because the balloons blocked the view, drivers could not see past the windshield.

Inflated balloons landed on Lake Erie, Cleveland | Photo credits : Fox 8

In the days following the collision of wind and balloons, many balloons were found installed on the Canadian side of Lake Erie. The tragedy undoubtedly caused unforeseen water pollution. Many streets and waterways were hit by clogs which caused extensive damage.

However, what made the charity event famous was the discovery of the deaths of two innocent people. On September 26, 1986, two fishermen, Raymond Broderick and Bernard Sulzer, dated but never returned home. Their families reported them missing on the day of Balloon Fest.

Almost immediately, rescuers discovered their boat by the west of Edgewater Park’s breach wall. Yet, in the middle of the balloon field circling the water, it was difficult for the crew to reach the area. After two days, on September 29, an extensive Coast Guard search revealed that the fishermen’s bodies had washed ashore.

The discovery came with great agony for the victim’s families. So, one of the wives of the fisherman sued the organizers of the Balloon Fest for 3.2 million dollars. The case was later settled on undisclosed terms. However, this was not the only victim for whom the event was held responsible.

Public Square, Cleveland, Ohio | Photo credits : Cleveland

Just as humans were impacted by this grand launch, animals also had to pay a price they didn’t deserve. As in many other places, countless balloons also landed on a pasture in Medina County, Ohio. There the helium-latex balloons caused suspected permanent damage arabian horse injuries.

As a result, Louise Nowakowski, the owner, also filed a lawsuit against United Way of Cleveland for $100,000, which ultimately ended in an undisclosed sum.

Although Cleveland set a world record in 1986 for simultaneously launching the largest mass of balloons ever, it’s unclear how proud the city is of the feat considering the consequences. Unfortunately, the supposed monumental fundraising stunt resulted in more tragedy and humiliation than joy.