Marketing a city is a tall task. Leadership must highlight all the city offers travelers while showing those looking to relocate that they can make a buck and raise a family. So, in 1986, one city conducted an eye-catching publicity stunt.

More specifically, a local charity organized a community effort to shatter a world record and bring national attention to the up-and-coming town. Unfortunately, complications and bad decisions turned the event into a disastrous spectacle…

In 1986, the United Way charity of Cleveland, Ohio, devised a brilliant fundraising and publicity event. The plan was a simple one, centered around colorful balloons. Simple enough, right?

Specifically, United Way planned to break the Guinness World Record for most simultaneously released balloons. Disneyland in Anaheim held the then-current record of 1.2 million, set the year before, below. Could that record be broken?

Elaine Isaacson / Orange County Register
Organizers of the event—including Treb Heining, a balloon artist, below—hoped so, but they also had greater ambitions for the stunt. They wanted to earn the city of Cleveland much-deserved recognition.

“I think this [event],” Treb told the local news, “is a prime example of what United Way is trying to do in terms of saying, ‘Cleveland, it’s your time. It’s time to say yes; it’s time to say it is a happening city.'” A noble goal, indeed.

John Kuntz / The Plain Dealer

So starting in March of ’86, Treb, United Way, and Cleveland started collecting permits upon permits and hammering out logistics. Finally, on September 27th, the potentially record-breaking day arrived.

Thom Sheridan / Flickr; Ballooniversity

Organizers suspended a net a city block long above Public Square in Cleveland’s downtown, which held the helium-inflated balloons. Over 2,000 volunteers from all over the city gathered underneath.

The volunteers spent hours filling up balloon after balloon, hoping to reach 2 million and shatter the record set by Disneyland. Shortly after the effort began, though, the disasters started piling up…

The Atlantic / YouTube

Volunteers filling up and tying two or three balloons every minute for hours straight accumulated blisters all over their fingers—many required bandages on their hands. Others faced worse problems.

One woman, for example, had tied a collection of balloons to her wristwatch, only to watch the helium-filled balloons eventually carry her jewelry away. And worst of all? Grey skies loomed on the horizon.

 United Way called for an early release to make sure that the balloons weren’t hampered by rain. Only 1.5 million had been filled by 1:50 p.m., but that was still enough for the record. So, giddy, volunteers pulled back the net…

The Atlantic / YouTube

At first, the balloons dazzled the crowd looking on. Blue, red, green, and yellow balloons swirled upward in a gorgeous display. “It was beautiful,” one spectator said. “It looked like confetti going up.” But the joy lasted only briefly.

Thom Sheridan / Flickr

You see, the plan, as United Way saw it, was for the balloons to float up, disperse, then biodegrade. That plan looked like a success as the balloons wrapped around Terminal Tower, below. Then the storm rolled in.

Thom Sheridan / Flickr

A cold front pushed the balloons back towards the ground, where some clogged the streets of downtown Cleveland. Others littered the runway at Burke Lakefront Airport, grounding all flights. But that wasn’t the worst of it.

See, the Coast Guard had been out on Lake Eerie all morning, looking for two missing fishermen after their small boat washed up without them. But mid-search, stray, storm-swept balloons descended on the water.

There, bobbing like bright buoys in the water, the balloons littered the water. This made the Coast Guard’s search for the 40-year-olds, Skip Sullivan and Raymond Broderick, nearly impossible…

The Atlantic / YouTube

Imagine trying to find a head or spotting a life jacket in waters filled with brightly colored spheres. “It’s like finding a needle in a haystack,” one searching Coast Guardsman said. For two days, the Guard found no signs of the men.

Two days later, both men washed up on shore, dead. Their wives sued United Way, arguing their husbands might have been found, was it not the fundraiser. This was one of many lawsuits the balloons caused.

As weeks passed, popped and deflated balloons washed up all over the Eerie shorelines, even in Canada. The event was an unmitigated disaster—but at least they had the record, right?

Wrong. Guinness refused to recognize United Way’s record-setting event. The organization couldn’t allow death, destruction, and poor organization to taint their record books—so Anaheim kept the record.

In the end, United Way’s fundraising event failed, though they did bring publicity to Cleveland, whatever that was worth. As of 32 years later, the charity, thankfully, has no plans to re-attempt a balloon launch.

Check out the video below to see a brilliant documentary on the disastrous Balloonfest ’86. You can see just how palpable the excitement before and during the launch was. It’s a shame it ended in such chaos.

Balloonfest ’86 looked oddly beautiful before the storm rolled in. It’s a shame the spectacle turned into such a tragic event.

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