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Why Launching a Cloud of One and a Half Million of Balloons Didn’t End Well

30 years ago in Cleveland they spent half a million dollars on an impressive show that went rogue because of bad weather.

In 1986, American charity foundation United Way of Greater Cleveland organized an advertising performance on a previously unseen scale: to draw attention to their activities, the organizers tried to set a world record for the largest number of balloons simultaneously launched in the air.

The show that got the name – Balloonfest’86 – took place in one of the central squares of Cleveland, surrounded by the three tallest buildings in the city. It took the effort of two and a half thousand volunteers to do the main task — fill two million balloons with helium.

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Soon it became clear that it wouldn’t be possible to reach the desired number: a thunderstorm was hanging over the city, which pushed the launch to several hours earlier than planned. On September 27, at 1.30 pm local time, a cloud of half a million balloons went up in the air.

The audience was excited: “It was beautiful, it looked like confetti going up. Totally awesome.” — the women who were observing the launch commented on it. At that point few people knew what would happen next: because of the rain, the balloons went down and starting falling all over the neighborhood.

Some of them blocked the runway of a local airport, others were the reason for dozens of car accidents.

Many balloons landed on Lake Erie, covering its surface entirely, and thus hindering the work of a rescue team that was searching for two missing fishermen.

After their bodies were finally found, the wife of one of them sued United Way, demanding a $3.2m compensation, but later the sides settled before going to court.

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All photos: Thom Sheridan

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