"BALLOONFEST "86" was held on 27 Sept. 1986 as a fundraiser for UNITED WAY. The organizers' goal was to set a world record for the simultaneous release of small helium-filled balloons. On that afternoon, PUBLIC SQUARE was filled with nearly 1.5 million balloons which were inflated by a corps of volunteers and staged for a massive single release. Some 100,000 people were in attendance.

The event was meant to bring positive publicity to both the charity and to Cleveland, but quickly turned into a disaster. First, strong winds blew many of the balloons north of the city, and rain caused the balloons to fall immediately. The balloons also caused the runway at BURKE LAKEFRONT AIRPORT to shut down and prevented the Coast Guard from finding two fishermen who had fallen off their boat. With balloons scattered across the surface of the lake the Coast Guard was unable to find the men.

Falling balloons also littered much of the city and clogged the area's waterways. Traffic accidents occurred throughout the city as drivers attempted to dodge falling balloons. Eventually, balloons reached as far south as Medina County, spooking a prized Arabian horse, whose owner would sued and settled with United Way. Within a few weeks, balloons were littering beaches as far as Ontario. 

Balloonfest '86 is now looked upon as a major environmental disaster and has been the subject of a 2017 documentary as well as numerous articles.  Organizers and the city of Cleveland were slapped with millions of dollars in damages contributing to a new loss for the event.

Vinod Sardesai

Updated by Christopher Roy  12/14/2023

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