It’s an unfortunate reality of life that sometimes the best of intentions can have the most disastrous of results. That’s something which the city of Cleveland learned the hard way when they released a record-breaking 1.5 million balloons into the air way back in 1986.
Dubbed the “Cleveland Balloonfest”, the event was organized to raise money for charity as well as being “an attempt to break the world record for biggest simultaneous launch”, which was held by Disney at the time – broken the previous year for its 30th birthday.
It took a staggering 2,5000 volunteers to inflate the balloons necessary for the record-breaking attempt.
Thom Sheridan, a Cleveland-based photographer, captured the spectacle, unknowingly documenting one of the worst accidental disasters in modern history.
To watch the breth-taking release of the balloons, and discover the horror that followed, check out the video below:
So many balloons were inflated for it by United Way that they filled a structure the width of a city block in Cleveland’s Public Square.
Amazingly, the event was initially intended to involve the release of two million balloons, however, because of poor weather conditions, the final number was reduced and they were released earlier than planned at 1:50 pm on September 27.
It wouldn’t take a genius to work out that so many balloons would be bad for the environment (even if they were biodegradable), and, this coupled with the poor weather, proved to be the event’s undoing. Shortly after the balloons were released into the air, they were quickly brought down by a storm.
Sadly, the event’s organizers didn’t consider the possibility that the balloons might be brought down by the weather. The rain caused them to be brought down unpopped onto the city’s Lake Erie, which was left virtually unrecognizable once it was filled with balloons.
Aside from the obvious environmental impact of the balloons being released, when the incident happened, authorities in the area were in the midst of a search and rescue operation for two missing fishermen and the balloons made it “impossible” to search the water for them.
Horrifyingly, the two men drowned, and one of their wives sued United Way for the impact which the balloons had in hampering the search.
It wasn’t just the fishermen who suffered as a result of the balloon rest. Animals were also severely affected, with racehorses injuring themselves after they were spooked by the balloons. In fact, a racehorse owner went as far as to sue United Way for $100,000 in damages.
The only upside to the terrible situation was that unlike most conventional plastic balloons, the ones used in the record-breaking attempt were biodegradable, which meant that they did not cause any lasting damage to the environment.
That being said, even biodegradable balloons do not disappear immediately, which meant that they still caused a significant amount of damage. According to a complaint by Ontario, Canada, resident P. Allen Woodliffe:
“These balloons, being made of plastic, are not readily biodegradable and, thus, will create an eyesore for some time to come, or else be an unnecessary and time-consuming expense for someone to clean up. They may also be hazards to wildlife such as waterfowl, gulls or terns.”
To put the scale of the problem into context, even though the balloons were released in September, they were still being discovered in November in places as far away as Canada. This is what Woodlife noted about the impact:
“In an average 200-yard stretch along the east beach, I counted 140 balloons. In the same average distance along the south beach, there were at least 300. This translated into anywhere from 10,000 to 15,000 balloons scattered along the 8-1/2 miles of shoreline at Rondeau.”
The balloons themselves cost a whopping $500,000. Given that this amount of money in and of itself could have done a lot for charity or the community after the event took place, it became an international talking point about how best to raise money in the future.
Floyd Riemenschneider from Yakima, Washington, pointed out how problematic it was:
“It seems to me the money spent for this stunt ($500,000) could have been used to much better advantage, seeing as how most of the funds were probably from donations from people who donate because they believe their money is going for a good cause, such as helping out the more unfortunate…”
Even if the balloons hadn’t been brought down by the weather, the consequences of this event were a lesson that some spectacles are, generally speaking, always going to be a bad idea.
Because the balloons created such an awe-inspiring effect in the sky, they actually led to traffic accidents as “as drivers swerved to avoid slow motion blizzards of multicolored orbs or took their eyes off the road to gawk at the overhead spectacle”.
Balloonfest also had a huge effect on air travel, which, on reflection, it’s hard to believe wasn’t taken into consideration, and the local airport had to be closed for half an hour after the event.
Perhaps worst of all was that after so many disastrous consequences, Cleveland didn’t even break the world record for the biggest simultaneous balloon launch.