|Date||September 27, 1986|
|Time||Around 1:50 PM EDT|
|Location||Public Square, Cleveland, Ohio, United States|
|Organized by||United Way of Cleveland|
|Non-fatal injuries||Multiple horses|
|Property damage||Multiple traffic collisions|
Balloonfest '86 was a 1986 event in which the United Way of Cleveland in Ohio set a world record by releasing almost one-and-a-half million balloons. The event was intended to be a harmless fundraising publicity stunt, but the balloons drifted back over the city, Lake Erie, and landed in the surrounding area, and caused problems for traffic and a nearby airport. The event also interfered with a United States Coast Guard search for two boaters who were later found drowned. In consequence, the organizers and the city faced lawsuits seeking millions of dollars in damages, and cost overruns put the event at a net loss.
The stunt was coordinated by Balloonart by Treb, a Los Angeles-based company headed by Treb Heining, which spent six months preparing for it. A rectangular structure the size of a city block, measuring 250 feet (76 m) by 150 feet (46 m) and rising three stories high, covered with a one-piece net of woven mesh material, was set up to hold the balloons, on the southwest quadrant of Public Square in Cleveland. Inside the structure, 2,500 students and other volunteers spent many hours filling the balloons with helium. United Way originally planned to release two million balloons, but eventually stopped at over 1.4 million. Children sold sponsorships to benefit United Way at the price of $1 for every two balloons.
On Saturday, September 27, 1986, with a rainstorm approaching, organizers decided on an early release of the balloons at about 1:50 p.m. EDT. Close to 1.5 million balloons rose up from Cleveland's Public Square, surrounding Terminal Tower and surpassing a world record set the previous year on the 31st anniversary of Disneyland.
Typically, a helium-filled latex balloon that is released outdoors will stay aloft long enough to be fully deflated before it descends to Earth. However, the Balloonfest balloons collided with a front of cool air and rain and dropped towards the ground, still inflated, clogging the land and waterways of Northeast Ohio. In the days following the event, balloons were reported washed ashore on the Canadian side of Lake Erie.
Two fishermen, Raymond Broderick and Bernard Sulzer, who had gone out on September 26, were reported missing by their families on the day of the event. Rescuers spotted their 16-foot (4.9 m) boat anchored west of the Edgewater Park breakwall. A Coast Guard search and rescue helicopter crew had difficulties reaching the area because of the "asteroid field" of balloons. A search-and-rescue boat crew tried to spot the fishermen floating in the lake, but Guard officials said balloons in the water made it impossible to see whether anyone was in the lake. On September 29, the Coast Guard suspended its search. The fishermen's bodies subsequently washed ashore. The wife of one of the fishermen sued the United Way of Cleveland and the company that organized the balloon release for $3.2 million and later settled on undisclosed terms.
Balloons landing on a pasture in Medina County, Ohio, spooked Louise Nowakowski's Arabian horses, which allegedly suffered permanent injuries as a result. Nowakowski sued the United Way of Cleveland for $100,000 in damages and settled for undisclosed terms.
Burke Lakefront Airport had to shut down a runway for half an hour after balloons landed there. Traffic collisions were also reported "as drivers swerved to avoid slow motion blizzards of multicolored orbs or took their eyes off the road to gawk at the overhead spectacle".
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- O'Malley, Michael (26 September 2011). "25 years ago, thousands watched a balloon launch on Public Square". The Plain Dealer. Retrieved 5 May 2014.
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- "Claim to world record for 'Balloonfest '86' is not all hot air: Michael K. McIntyre's Tipoff". cleveland.com. Retrieved 2018-11-13.