By Ashleigh / Dec 12, 2022
The Big Moment
He had a proud smile on his face as he stood back and admired his work. He wondered what it would look like once it was set free. There were more than one million shiny balloons pulsing against the tarp, desperate to get free. Weeks of hard work and planning went into this, and it would be tested at any moment. No one was ready for the disaster that was about to take place in Cleveland.
Crowds of people stood in Cleveland’s Public Square, waiting to witness the momentous event. Officials were waiting in helicopters, ensuring everyone’s safety. But soon, they would all witness the biggest nightmare this town had ever seen.
It was 1986. The world was abuzz with Hands Across America, Halley’s Comet, and the Challenger Explosion, and the Soviets were still trying to cover up the disaster at Chernobyl. MTV was still playing music videos, and Oprah Winfrey’s media empire was just beginning.
Celebrating their thirty-year anniversary, The Guinness Book of World Records was igniting world record fever across the globe. Naturally, the city of Cleveland also wanted to claim its place among the world-record breakers and go down in history. And they would – just not in the way that they had hoped.
A Piece Of The Action
The city of Cleveland, wanting to get in on all the world-record hype, had the perfect vehicle to launch them into the spotlight. It came in the form of an organization called The United Way of Greater Cleveland and is part of the greater United Way brand.
This organization’s main objective is to help impoverished communities and encourage social justice in the United States. The United Way achieves this by receiving donations from the public. And when they caught wind of the city wanting to break a world record, they saw an opportunity to raise a lot of money. But they never anticipated the backlash that would follow.
Cleveland, Lake Erie and Canada
Remember this. Lake Erie is the fourth-largest lake of the five Great Lakes in North America and it also serves as the natural border between the United States and Canada.
This is an important clue why everything went wrong. Can you imagine why?
At the time, Disneyland held the world record that Cleveland coveted. Everyone involved knew it wouldn’t be easy. It was then that the city of Cleveland and The United Way called upon Balloonart by Treb, a small Los Angeles-based company.
The company was owned by renowned balloon artist Tred Heining, who had begun his balloon art career at Disneyland at the young age of 15. Treb’s work has since gone on to be featured at superbowls, Academy Award presentations, and presidential inaugurations – despite the tragedy that was Balloonfest 1986.
A Colorful Cloud
It’s a common misconception that the balloons at Balloonfest ’86 were given out to citizens and then released. The helium-filled balloons were held in a structure the size of a city block, in the shadow of the Terminal Tower in Cleveland’s Public Square
For hours, the balloons were filled by volunteers. Although Treb had originally intended the number of balloons reach a grand total of 2 million, the volunteers, with blistered fingers and shaking hands, prompted the team to call it quits at 1.5 million. Now, they were ready. But nobody was ready for what they were about to unleash.
A PR Disaster In The Making
But how would filling 1.5 million balloons raise money for the United Way? Well, every schoolchild was sent out to sell sponsorships. A donation of a dollar would get you two balloons that would be included in the extravagant stunt. And people donated in droves, all wanting to be a part of the hype
A PR Disaster In The Making
With such a large amount of money raised for the cause, The United Way should have had enough money to pull the stunt off without a hitch. But the fickle hand of fate threw a curveball their way, leaving everyone completely blindsided.
Cleveland and Treb calculated the perfect day and time to release the balloons but the weather can be unpredictable. Even though it was a sunny morning, some gray clouds started to form on the horizon and slowly move towards Cleveland.
Some people noticed by no one paid much attention. In retrospect, that was their chance to avoid this disaster.
A Huge Storm Was Coming
The angry storm clouds began to roll into Cleveland — as if nature was trying her best to put a stop to the catastrophe that was about to rock the world. But the impending storm brought something nobody anticipated with it.
An icy chill blew in from the sea, bringing with it a cold front that would freeze or puncture the balloons. It was as if circumstances beyond anyone’s control were determined to prevent the balloons’ release. And the city of Cleveland should have heeded the warnings.
Have You Ever Wondered What Happens To Balloons In The Sky?
Typically after a balloon filled with helium is released in the sky, it stays afloat and gradually deflates.
Then it descends back to earth. This definitely didn’t happen in Cleveland and now you’ll see why.
Balloons And Rain Is A Really Bad Mix
When a balloon is hit by cool air and rain, it is pushed toward the ground while still being inflated. For obvious reasons, this can be quite dangerous and destructive.
This results in the absolute madness that happened in Cleveland.
His Team Told Him Not To Do It
Treb, was repeatedly warned by his team that releasing the balloons with these weather conditions would potentially be a bad idea. But, Treb wouldn’t back off that easily.
If you’d spent all this time preparing the biggest balloon event in the world, would you just call it off?
The Balloonfest Almost Cancelled
There is a rumor that Balloonfest was very close to being canceled minutes before they let the balloons free.
But, as you can see, it was too late to let all of this go to waste. What could possibly go wrong?
It Finally Happened
After all these complications, Balloonfest ’86 was about to begin. Tred released the balloons earlier than planned to minimize the impact the storm would have on the event.
There’s no need to say that this didn’t work and now you’ll see why. It was time to release the balloons.
While The World Watched
Tred, determined to have his moment, decided that they would have to release the balloons early to get ahead of the storm. He gave the all-clear and the clear tarps holding the helium-filled balloons were pulled away, unleashing 1,429,643 balloons on the world.
The balloons entered the sky slowly and mushroomed around the Terminal Tower like a hulking mass, littering the sky above Cleveland like colored confetti. Cheers and applause erupted from the crowd on the ground, all whooping and hollering at the spectacular sight above, unaware that they had all made a terrible mistake.
The View Was Spectacular But…
Without a doubt, the scenery was spectacular. Remember that there were 1,429,643 balloons being released in the sky at the same time.
Even though the view was impressive, no one could have prepared Cleveland for what happened after that moment.
Here’s How Everything Went Wrong
Remember Cleveland’s location? Remember the huge storm and how balloons react with cool air, wind, and rain?
What you’re going to see next totally illustrates how this man unleashed a nightmare in Cleveland.
A Turning Point In Cleveland’s History
Cleveland remembers that day with terror. It was apparent that this event would be a turning point in Cleveland’s history.
Only imagine how much money would Cleveland have to pay because of the destruction that was caused by the event. Wait until you see the aftermath.
The policemen flying above the event had kept their distance, anticipating the balloons to rise like a single column. But when the wind picked up, buffeting the mass of floating orbs about and scattering them downwind, they were flying blind.
Thankfully, the officials were specially trained to fly in difficult conditions. They managed to navigate their helicopters out of the mushroom cloud above Cleveland, but the trouble that the balloon release was about to cause was only just beginning.
A Perfect Storm
When helium-filled balloons rise into the stratosphere, they are usually scattered by the wind. But the unusual circumstances that were unfolding were about to become extremely problematic. The cold front that was blowing into Cleveland that morning caused the balloons to be spread over a wider area. But this wasn’t the only problem nobody had accounted for.
In normal conditions, balloons will soar high into the sky and then begin to expand as the air pressure around them reduces. This expansion stretches the already thin plastic and they explode. Then, the plastic remnants fall back down to the ground. But on that day, that was not what happened.
An Unexpected Result
Treng Heining and his team had made a monumental miscalculation. They had failed to consider a fundamental and universal law: what goes up must come down. The balloons, obeying the laws of basic physics, did just that.
The balloons, still intact, began to rain down on Cleveland. But not only Cleveland. They plummeted down into the streets, into the rivers and lakes, and into the farmlands. Most of them ended up all the way in Canada, where they littered Lake Erie like a blight of eerily bobbing plastic. But the worst of the fallout was still to come.
Canadians and residents in surrounding areas began to send complaints in droves. Everyone was angry and astounded that such a destructive idea had passed environmental safety checks. Countless animals fell victim to the choking hazards that littered the landscape. But they weren’t the only victims.
Travelers on roads nearby were pummeled with masses of intact balloons, wreaking havoc on the motorways and causing accidents. But, even more chaos was about to ensue nearby, at the runway at the Burke Lakefront Airport.
They Shut Down The Airport
The still-intact mass of balloons had made their way onto the runway, rendering it completely unsafe for use. Planes couldn’t land on the landing strip, and the airport declared an emergency and shut down the runway. No planes could leave or enter the airport for an hour.
Many flights were canceled, delayed, or diverted. But the balloons hadn’t completed their path of destruction yet. In a nearby stable of prized racehorses, the balloons were about to cause absolute mayhem.
The horses, seeing the falling colorful orbs descending upon them, went into a frenzy. With nostrils and eyes wide, they were Spooked and terrified. They began to stampede. Desperate to escape, they plowed into one another blindly.
The racehorses injured themselves and were unfit to compete after the incident. Their owner, furious and wanting justice, decided to take action and sued United Way for the damages. But the tragic aftermath of what was supposed to be a frivolous stunt didn’t end there.
And yet, amid the fate of the racehorses and the countless wild animals, the chaos of the travel delays and the motor vehicle accidents, the Balloonfest ’86 also claimed two human lives. That very same day of the balloon release, officials at Lake Erie were searching for two men.
The men had been reported as missing after their boat had been found close to shore, capsized and battered. Inside was a fishing rod and a fisherman’s cap – all that remained of the two fishermen. The coast guards were trawling the lake as best they could, but there was one problem.
An Impossible Task
Helicopters searched the area, but the thousands of balloons that had been pummeled by rain ended up in Lake Erie. All the bobbing plastic balloons that littered the surface of the entire lake made what would have been a straightforward search-and-rescue mission impossible.
Trying to identify an orange life jacket among the teeming mass of orange balloons was like looking for a needle in a haystack. The men were eventually found two days later when they washed ashore, but they were, sadly, deceased. But, there’s more.
They Hadn’t Thought It Through
Even though the balloon release had wreaked such unforeseen chaos and destruction, the aftermath was equally devastating – in short, the Balloonfest of ’86 was a nightmare. The United Way claimed that the balloons were biodegradable, but were they really?
The United Way proudly stated that they had considered the environmental impact of releasing 1.5 million plastic balloons into the world – they said that these balloons would begin to degrade at about the same rate as an oak leaf does. But how long does that take, exactly?
Oak leaves can take at least four years to begin to break down naturally. And the balloons that were released on that day would go down in history as an unmitigated disaster. It took a year for them to biodegrade fully, leaving Cleveland and nearby regions covered in millions of soggy plastic particles.
The balloons of Balloonfest ‘86 were also filled with helium to make them rise. But there have been no studies as to what happens when such a large amount of helium is released into the atmosphere. Not only that, but now helium is considered a limited resource. But would The United Way pay for their huge mistakes?
An Expensive Mistake
The entire, utter failure of a PR stunt cost half a million dollars in donations. It’s not lost on the city of Cleveland that this money could have gone toward something meaningful, such as building a school or a shelter for the homeless.
After the massive disaster of Balloonfest ’86, The United Way has changed the way they do things. They no longer organize enormous and frivolous publicity stunts. Needless to say, the organization’s reputation was severely damaged after Balloonfest ’86.
Between the cost involved to organize and hold the event and the lawsuits they faced in its wake, The United Way made very little money from Balloonfest ’86. Then, they had to handle the massive cleanup operations to try and undo some of the environmental damage they had caused.
The United Way’s stunt also earned them a lot of backlash — from the public and from environmental agencies. The common adage “all publicity is good publicity” didn’t apply to the catastrophe that was Balloonfest ’86. And the organization is still dealing with the fallout.
People who had never heard of The United Way now knew who they were, thanks to the infamous Balloonfest. But people were far less inclined to donate their hard-earned cash to an organization that is notorious for polluting the environment.
A quick look at the company’s earnings from the 1980s simply tries to sweep the incident under the rug, stating: “United Way distributed more than $40 million to local agencies in Cleveland in 1984 but failed to meet several annual goals of the mid-1980s.” And all for what? The 1988 copy of The Guinness Book of World Records recognizes the event as a world record “largest-ever mass balloon release”, with 1,429,643 balloons launched.
The Balloon fest ’86 had the intention to inspire unity among the residents of Cleveland. The effect of the discarded balloons was not properly considered. There were many environmental activists who tried to stop Treb Heining but he did not take heed. Like so many large corporations that have the financial stability and legal support to do whatever they like.
The fact remains that a place in the 1988 Guinness Book of World Records and a few minutes of adoring fans is not worth the pollution and environmental destruction the event caused.
The Things People Do
Treb Heining was interviewed by a reporter standing by. In the video, you can see that he is very excited about his great idea. His reason for releasing the balloons is to create happiness and joy in everyone. But that was quite a large assumption considering the environmental hazards caused.
It could be that the Balloonfest ’86 was just for Treb to acquire more name, fame, and glory. One may ask if he really had the Cleveland community’s best intentions at heart.
During his interviews, he didn’t really have anything else to say about the reason for the event. What were his real reasons for wanting to put the state of Cleveland in the Guinness Book of World records?
The reporter had a few strange questions about how they had managed to fill 1.5 million balloons. The source of his labour will astound you. His answer was perfectly calculated as though he did a good thing.
To create a buzz about the event, Treb advertised that people who wanted to help fill balloons could volunteer to assist. Thousands of men, women, and children volunteered to blow up plastic balloons, free of charge.
If you have ever blown even one balloon before you know how difficult it is. Imagine blowing 5 or six, one after one. Those poor children must have been so out of breath. They definitely couldn’t handle that with their small lung capacity.
Freedom Of Choice
Many bystanders tried to persuade parents to get their children to stop, but some parents were too high on the occasion to recognize the heat blaring down. There were many reports of heat stroke and dehydration.
People argued that it was their choice to volunteer to blow up balloons. Some were fine with having their hands covered in blisters, and others did not expect that damage at all. It was a different experience for many, of all ages.
News of the Balloonfest traveled worldwide. Everyone was tuned into their TVs waiting for the countdown. Almost every news channel in the country had a reporter live to interact with the public.
It was one of the first major events since the making of television and had to be broadcasted on a large scale. It truly was a sight for sore eyes. People who attended the event still question its need because of the aftermath.
What’s The Damage
The balloons landed on the ground and in the lake and ocean. Many balloons were seen as far as Canada. That gives you an idea of the peripheral damage caused by balloon plastic. Bits of balloon plastic were found stuck everywhere. From trees to people’s houses, pools, and cars, the damage was widespread and just impossible to clean.
The balloon plastic took over a year to biodegrade which left the earth in a terrible condition, up till today bits of plastic can still be found in the soil. This is devasting for the ecosystem and farming.
Once Is Enough
Up to date, there has not been another event to match the magnitude of the Balloonfest ’86. There are more legalities and rules involved in having an event like that and most people will not go through the trouble. Today, you would have to get permission from various authorities like the Police, and Air Traffic Control Towers. With the fast-paced business of the airport industry, corporations would not allow the airport closure for any silly reason, it simply is a waste of time and money.
People have also grown more environmentally conscious since then and would rather opt for an environmentally friendly event.
The Future of Balloons
The Events and Entertainment industry is still a massive one. Balloons, streamers, tinsel, and glitter are always going to be around. The nightlife industry relies heavily on new and improved products to gain clients and throw outrageous parties. Although nobody has released 1.5 million balloons since then, many other events have seen thousands of balloons float around weddings and birthday parties.
Events and decorations are a part of life, but people need to learn how to be more environmentally conscious about disposing of them. Reusing items and recycling are great ideas. We should all do a little bit more to be more environmentally conservative.
In order to protect the privacy of those depicted, some names, locations, and identifying characteristics have been changed and are products of the author’s imagination. Any resemblances to actual events or places or persons, living or dead, are entirely coincidental.