How Balloonfest '86 in Cleveland became a manmade disaster

Over 30 years ago, the United Way of Cleveland organization attempted to break a world record as part of a fundraising publicity stunt. Its plan was to release 1.5 million balloons into the sky.

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On September 27, 1986, around 2,500 volunteers gathered at a square in Cleveland to help the organization achieve this goal. After filling the balloons with helium, the stunt coordinators released them all at once just after 1:30 p.m.

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The balloons dispersing over the city's skyline created a stunning effect. Citizens and volunteers alike were left mesmerized as they watched the magnificent spectacle in all its glory.

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However, little thought had gone into the following question: When all those balloons deflate and fall to the ground, who's going to take care of the garbage?

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Once the balloons were released, this well-meaning event soon had catastrophic consequences.

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The first place affected by the balloons was Burke Lakefront Airport. With deflated balloons quickly littering its runway, officials had no choice but to close the airport for a short period of time.

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Balloons started to fall around Lake Erie, too. A while later, a rescue helicopter was called out to search for two missing fishermen caught up in the balloon storm. Though they had last been seen on the lake, the rescue team couldn't identify them among the multicolored sea of floating balloons. The boaters' bodies eventually washed up on the shore.

The balloons had also flown away to neighboring cities. Most of the balloons fell to the ground due to rain and low temperatures — it was like a blizzard of "plastic garbage."

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In the aftermath, the United Way of Cleveland had to take responsibility for what happened. Though the organization successfully broke the world record, most people remember this event for the poor planning that led to these horrific consequences.

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