The date: September 27, 1986. The location: Cleveland, Ohio. The occasion: a fundraiser for the United Way and an opportunity to break the world record for the largest simultaneous release of helium balloons.
What could possibly go wrong?
For weeks volunteers worked in preparation for the big event. As the big day dawned, 2,500 volunteers worked feverishly to fill 1.5 million balloons with helium and release them into a large net. The assembled balloons rose three stories high and covered an area the size of a city block.
As the net was released and the balloons launched heavenward, spectators were filled with appreciation for the multicolored explosion that quickly eclipsed the Cleveland skyline.
The joyful festivities did not last long. Shortly after the release of the balloons, the winds changed, and soon the balloons were plummeting downward, propelled by a sudden cold front and rain. The colorful messengers of happiness had become dreadful harbingers of disaster as the waterways of northeastern Ohio became clogged with latex.
The Coast Guard, which had been conducting search and rescue operations for two fishermen, was forced to suspend their search due to the balloons. The rescue helicopter crew described the “asteroid field” of balloons that made navigation impossible. Spotters were unable to distinguish between the heads of the victims they were searching for and the thousands of balloons that covered the surface. The bodies of the fishermen later washed ashore amidst the deflated balloons.
The balloons, which were released without any inquiry into air or naval operations in the area, caused the Burke Lakefront Airport to shut down due to visibility and runway obstruction.
In the end, the environmental and financial impact of the event was incalculable. Just a few examples of the fallout:
- A Montville Township woman sued the United Way Services of Cleveland for $100,000 damages from injuries sustained by her prize Arabian horses that were spooked by the balloons.
- The wife of one of the drowned fishermen sued the United Way for $3.2 million for hampering the search for her husband, contributing in his death.
- Traffic accidents were reported throughout the Cleveland area “as drivers swerved to avoid slow motion blizzards of multicolored orbs or took their eyes off the road to gawk at the overhead spectacle”.
- The balloons did not remain a domestic problem. Within two months, between 10,000 and 15,000 balloons had washed ashore on the northern shore of Lake Ontario, polluting the beaches of Ontario-Rondeau Provincial Park in Ontario, Canada.