Cleveland, OH

This event was supposed to break the Guinness World Record. Instead, it caused a catastrophe, killing two people

Maya Devi
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On September 1986, United Way of Cleveland, an international network of over 1,800 local nonprofit fundraising affiliates, released approximately 1.5 million balloons into the air in hopes of breaking the Guinness World Record. At the time, the Biggest Simultaneous Balloon Launch was held by Disneyland, which had released several balloons on its 30th anniversary.

The main aim of the Balloon Fest ‘86 was to raise money for United Way Cleveland and portray Cleveland as an upcoming city in America. Tom Holowach, the project manager of Balloon Fest '86, said in an interview that the guy who was behind this idea dreamed of rebranding Cleveland as cool.

After six months of planning, the event was conducted at Cleveland’s Public Square, a public place buzzing with people, and more than 2,500 volunteers gathered to fill helium balloons.

However, there were signs of a storm, and officials gave instructions to release the balloons earlier than planned. At 1:50 PM local time, the colorful inflatables were released into the air.

People who witnessed the event cheered, “There is no 'mistake on the lake' anymore,” and everyone was overjoyed at Cleveland getting into the Guinness World Records. However, the joy didn’t last for long.

The balloons, which were originally thought to deflate and fall down, fell down earlier than expected due to rain. It literally rained balloons in Cleveland that day.

The unexpected shower of inflated balloons blinded some motorists and distracted other drivers, causing accidents in the city area. The Burke Lakefront Airport had to shut down for 30 minutes as balloons filled the runway.

The saddest of these was the death of two fishermen in Lake Erie. Raymond Broderick and Bernard Sulzer had gone fishing the day before the event and didn’t return when expected. Their families filed a missing complaint, but the coast guards were helpless because the lake was full of colorful balloons, and they couldn’t spot the fishermen.

“You’re looking for more or less an orange life jacket or a head," a guard said, "and here you have a couple hundred thousand orange balloons.”

On September 29th, the coast guard stopped searching for them. A day later, the bodies of the fishermen washed onshore. However, their families filed a case in court against the organizers for $3.2 million but had an out-of-court settlement.

What’s extremely disappointing is that although the Balloon Fest ‘86 achieved the Biggest Simultaneous Balloon Launch title, it only appeared once in the book as the publication retired the category due to safety reasons.

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