The Great Balloon Disaster of 1986

In 1986, the city of Cleveland, Ohio was having a bit of an identity crisis. For the longest time, the city had been somewhat associated with things like Organized Crime, pollution, corruption, and … well, a whole bunch of less than desirable things. For the past several years, the city had been trying to clean up its image, and to be fair, they were doing a relatively good job at it. Crime was down. Many of the worst streets were freshly paved. The parks were no longer filled to the brim with used condoms and IV needles. Heck, even Aunt Irma started cleaning up after her dog in her own backyard.

Life was starting to look good for Cleveland, but, once you have a bad reputation, it’s very difficult to undo that.

The city leaders wanted to do … something. Something BIG! Something that would say, “Hey, look at Cleveland now, isn’t it great!!!” but they weren’t exactly coming up with any good ideas. But, then someone came up with an idea that was so crazy, it might actually work.

The previous year, out in California, on what would have otherwise been known as Walt Disney’s 84th Birthday, and what was the 30th anniversary of Disneyland, the park held something they called Skyfest, and it was a huge success. On December 5, 1985, they released 1000 balloons from 1000 tubes, filling the sky with a million helium filled orbs, much to the delight of children (and adults) all across Anaheim. (They were also awarded with an entry in the Guiness Book of World Records for the most balloons launched in a single event.)

‘We could do that,’ the city must have said to themselves. ‘It’d be easy. And if we launch more than one million balloons, we’ll steal the Guiness Book of World Records record from Disney and then everyone will start to love us again. What could possibly go wrong?’

What … indeed.

I should also, probably, note here that this was going to be a huge fundraiser for The United Way, so they had a pretty big hand not just in the balloon stuff, but a lot of the other things going on in town on that day as well. 

What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

In the weeks leading up to the event, the city pulled out all the stops. If they were going to have a huge party, it was going to be the biggest, the nicest, the most fabulous thing. Go big or go home, right?

City crews erected a giant net, an entire city block long, right in the middle of downtown. Then everyone, and I mean damn near everyone, started filling balloons with helium and trapping them under the huge net. Volunteers with The United Way filled balloon filling stations, as did The Boys and Girls Club, The Boy Scouts and The Girl Scouts, and many of the local grade schools got involved, too. 

The day before the event, the first omen of bad things to come occurred when a thunderstorm passed through the area. Somehow, all the Balloonfest ‘86 stuff, from balloons to decorations, managed to survive the storm. However, a few miles up the coast of Lake Erie, two men (Raymond Broderick and Bernard Sulzer) had gone out fishing, but never returned back. Their families reported them missing, and the coast guard began to search. Their boat was quickly discovered, but whatever remained of the two guys themselves … that was another story. It was believed that they fell off their boat during the storm and possibly drowned. But, there was still at least a wee bit of hope that one, or both, might still be alive.

The following day, as people began filling the streets of Downtown Cleveland, the search for the two missing fishermen continued. And, everybody’s eyes were on the skies. So, when yet another threat of a storm loomed over the city, one thing was clear – they were going to have to change their plans.

Calling off such an event, with 1,500,000 (a million and a half, take that Disney) didn’t seem like a valid option. The only other thing they could do was to launch early. So … that’s what they did.

And at a little before 2:00 in the afternoon of September 27th, 1986, The City of Cleveland earned themselves a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records when they launched a million and a half balloons into the sky …


To say that things went wrong almost immediately would be a major understatement. Moments after all those balloons were released, the storm winds picked up, blowing all the balloons back to earth. And since Cleveland was a fairly good sized city with good sized city things … it didn’t take long for the airport to be so inundated with balloons that it was forced to close, several major roads (including highways) were also forced to close as accident after accident occurred as people tried to make their way out of the city. 

A short ways down the coast, as Lake Erie began to fill with still inflated balloons, it grew more and more difficult with every passing hour to spot the bodies of the two guys who had been out fishing. After a short time, the search was called off partly due to the now-difficult nature of the search, but also fear of what damage that many balloons could have upon their search boat. Several days later, the two bodies did wash up on the shore, prompting the families to sue The City of Cleveland and The United Way. Months later, they settled out of court for an undisclosed amount.

Parts of the city were thrust into darkness, partly due to the number of balloons hovering in the sky, but also on account of what happens when helium balloons meet electric wires. Two hospitals were especially hard hit. First by the number of injuries caused by automobile accidents, then by power outages.

In Medina County, Ohio (south of Cleveland) a small cluster of balloons drifted into a ranch there, frightening a number of horses. One horse in particular received serious injuries as a result, prompting yet another lawsuit.

Not all disasters were immediately apparent.

Balloons had, after all, gone everywhere. As road crews began using tractors to remove latex debris from the roads, boats were starting to use nets to collect the pollutants from the lake. Balloons made their way into the water drainage and sewer systems, which likewise needed to be cleared. Balloons fell on the top of buildings, and in people’s yards and in creeks and rivers and the list goes on. In many cases, this caused these systems not to work properly, or at all. And, the cleanup costs quickly skyrocketed. Latex Pollution affected birds and plant life, and by the end of the disaster, it was impossible to know the total cost, both in financial terms, as well as economic and practical.

The 1988 Guinness Book of World Records  recognized Cleveland as holding an event with the “largest ever mass balloon release” with an official total of 1,429,643 balloons, not that the city felt much like celebrating that fact. Guinness did, however, because of what happened in Cleveland, stop recognizing awards for the largest balloon release – thus granting Cleveland that permanent title. (Again, not that they really want it anymore.)

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