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Balloonfest ’86: The Release of 1.5 Million Balloons!

As a fun event aimed at breaking a world record, while raising funds for charity, almost 1.5 million balloons were released simultaneously. The Balloonfest '86 event was organised in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1986 by United Way (a non-profit organisation).

People could sponsor balloons at a cost of $1 for two balloons, with the proceeds helping charitable projects in the community that were being coordinated by United Way. However, after the stunt got out of hand, disrupting traffic, airports and an emergency rescue mission, the event sadly turned sour, leading to law suits.



The event was aimed at breaking the world record for the simultaneous release of balloons – the record has been held by Disneyland since 1985, when they staged a similar stunt to celebrate the theme park's 30th anniversary.

Six months' careful planning and preparation preceded Balloonfest '86, which was coordinated by a Los Angeles-based company called Balloonart by Treb, owned by Treb Heining.

A massive rectangular structure was created to hold the balloons, measuring 250ft long by 150ft wide and towering three storeys high. It was covered with a woven mesh to hold the balloons in place prior to the mass release.

The container was placed on the south-west side of Public Square in Cleveland. Around 2,500 volunteers and students worked for many hours inside the structure, filling up the balloons with helium.

United Way scaled down its original plan of releasing two million balloons because it was over-ambitious, deciding instead to release between 1.4 million and 1.5 million.


Grand launch

On 27th September 1986, the big day had arrived. Balloonfest organisers were concerned that a rain storm was coming, so they arranged for the balloons to be released a little earlier than planned, at 1.50pm.

As the multi-coloured balloons floated off into the sky, it was a spectacular sight. For a while, it became a truly incredible, awesome display, with the giant cloud of balloons resembling some kind of strange alien invasion, or a giant explosion of colour.

Unfortunately, the stunning publicity stunt and fundraising idea was about to go spectacularly (and tragically) wrong.



The helium-filled latex balloons stayed afloat for a short time, but the front of rain and cold air that was moving in caused their demise sooner than anticipated. Organisers expected the balloons to float off and disappear into the sky, coming down naturally in various locations as they gradually deflated.

However, coming down in a semi-inflated state due to the weather conditions, hundreds of thousands of balloons began to clog the waterways and land around north-east Ohio. Days after the event, balloons were still landing in Lake Erie and were washed ashore, causing problems for boat-users.

Tragedy struck after two fishermen, Bernard Sulzer and Raymond Broderick, were reported missing by their families on the day of Balloonfest, after failing to return from a fishing trip. Their 16ft boat was found anchored at the Edgewater Park break wall.

However, the Coast Guard and the search-and-rescue helicopter crew couldn't reach the area, due to what was described as an "asteroid field" of balloons.


Organisers sued

The search-and-rescue boat was also out looking for the missing fishermen on the lake, but there were so many balloons in the water that it was impossible to see whether they were there or not. The Coast Guard had to suspend its search on 29th September, after being hindered for two days by the balloons.

Sadly, the fishermen's bodies were washed ashore at a later date. The family of one of the fishermen sued United Way and Balloonart by Treb for $3.2 million. They later agreed on an out-of-court settlement, the terms of which were kept private.

Other law suits were to follow: balloons that landed on a pasture in Medina County had spooked Arabian horses belonging to Louise Nowakowski, who alleged they suffered permanent injuries after taking flight. She also sued United Way for $100,000 compensation, later settling on undisclosed terms.

The runway at Burke Lakefront Airport was temporarily closed down after many balloons landed there. Motorists were also swerving to avoid collisions, after balloons spread across the highway. Eye witnesses described it as a "blizzard of orbs" swirling around the road and landing in front of cars, with motorists being distracted as they drove.

Despite the subsequent disasters, the 1988 Guinness Book of World Records recognised the event as the largest ever mass balloon release in history. Not surprisingly, nobody has tried to break the record since!



Although we don't manufacture balloons, Coruba offers an exclusive range of rubber products. We are one of the UK's leading providers of high-quality rubber matting and other products. For enquiries, please call 01702 560194.

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