Sirens blared across the city of Cleveland as the rainbow cloud of death swept throughout the land. Two men had already died. Dozens more were injured in various car crashes and other accidents. Even a couple horses became fatally injured in the chaos. All of this pain and suffering from a seemingly harmless charity event.
The year was 1986. The month was September. The day was the 27th. And the time was a little past noon. This event had been planned for months beforehand though, as the charitable organization United Way wanted to break a world record. They could have done anything. They could have had the largest firework display ever. They could have had the largest release of butterflies ever. They could have not released millions of helium balloons into the environment. But they did.
In all fairness, United Way’s intentions weren’t evil. The 80s were a different time, when people thought that dumping hundreds of thousands of pounds of plastic into the ecosystem was normal. And they couldn’t have known that a massive cold front was rapidly approaching. And in case you didn’t know, helium balloons don’t act normally in a cold front; specifically, instead of floating up and away into the lower echelons of the atmosphere to land in some random location down wind, balloons in cold fronts have the tendency to sink down back to Earth without going very far up or around.
Anyways, for a small donation fee to the United Way charity group of exactly one dollar, they promised to add two helium balloons to their already massive armada. To achieve the workforce needed to create such an event, United Way relied on student volunteers numbering in the thousands. In the end, the swarm of balloons created was around 1.5 million members strong, and, at 1:50 PM, they opened the net holding the conglomeration of floating plastics.
Children and families looked on from the streets and apartment buildings as the balloons overtook Cleveland’s Public Square, blotting out the sun and the buildings alike. For the first ten minutes, this must have been a spectacular event, as the rainbow cloud floated beautifully over the city. For these Clevelanders below, the cloudy gray and blue sky had been completely replaced by the beautiful mixture of colors swirling above. Like a rubber aurora borealis, the small bags of helium refracted and reflected the rays of light that came through them into a multicolored spectacle never before seen. The first half an hour seemed like a success for United Way. But the cold front was quick to rain on their parade.
Being pushed down by the approaching front, the balloons started to sink back into to the city, as the cloud of rainbow lights quickly became an ominous cloud of misfortune. To start with, the balloons eventually reached street level, where they greatly impeded and distracted traffic. Whether it be from the lack of visibility caused by the balloons or the distracting spectacle of a balloon blizzard, many crashed their cars into trees, buildings, and other vehicles. Luckily, this didn’t cause any fatal injuries for drivers or passengers. But in a nearby pasture, several grazing horses were startled so much that they panicked, broke their legs and were otherwise injured permanently, thus needing to be put down. The balloon release also enveloped the Cleveland Burke Lakefront airport, causing runways to be closed and flights to be delayed. And lastly, worst of all, two fishermen—Bernard Sulzer and Raymond Broderick—were reported missing at the time of the balloon release. The Coast Guard might have found the two men had it not been for the massive flood of distracting, head-like balloons bobbing in the water. Four days later, the Coast Guard had to suspend its search due to the lack of results and the difficulty of searching through a polluted rainbow lake. Shortly after, the two men washed up on the shores of the lake, both deceased.
Naturally, United Way got sued by every party negatively affected. The wives of the fishermen sued for millions, the horse owner for hundreds of thousands, and several dozen other angry citizens for a variety of different amounts. The event was a net loss for United Way. However, they did make it into the Guinness Book of World Records, officially for the largest mass balloon release ever and unofficially for the most destructive charity event of all time. Some say that if you search through the gutters and desolate waterways of Cleveland, you might just find an old, deflated latex balloon.
By Maximilian Hodsen, Contributor
Maximilian Hodsen describes himself as an”18 year old visionary, lover of cheeses, [and] loves using the word ectetera.”
Kroll, John. “Balloonfest 1986, the Spectacle That Became a Debacle: Cleveland Remembers (Video).” Cleveland.com, Cleveland.com, 15 Aug. 2011, https://www.cleveland.com/remembers/2011/08/balloonfest_1986_the_spectacle.html.
Kushins, Jordan. “That Time Cleveland Released 1.5 Million Balloons and Chaos Ensued.” Gizmodo, Gizmodo, 23 Apr. 2014, https://gizmodo.com/that-time-cleveland-released-1-5-million-balloons-and-c-1565731191.