CLEVELAND (WJW) – It was supposed to improve Cleveland’s image and show the world a city on the rise. But 35 years ago Monday, a monumental event quickly turned disastrous, causing multiple accidents and hampering the search for two missing fishermen in Lake Erie.
“It was like almost a volcano when it went off,” said WJW’s Neil Zurcher, who covered the event, “Just about everything in the world that could go wrong went wrong that weekend.”
On Sept. 27. 1986, more than 100,000 people filled Public Square in downtown Cleveland for the charitable event.
Balloonfest ’86 was a fundraising event sponsored by the United Way and included legendary balloon artist Treb Heining from California.
“The United Way and they’re going to put Cleveland back on the map. They’re gonna have a giant balloon launch,” said David Moss, who also covered the event.
It took months of planning and thousands of volunteers to inflate the 1.5 million balloons that were to be released. They were held in place by a specially constructed netting structure.
At that time, the thinking about environmental impact was different, and people thought the balloons would reach an altitude where they popped and disintegrated. The year before, in 1985, Disneyland had launched 1 million balloons to honor Walt Disney on what would’ve been his 84th birthday.
In 1986, Cleveland was a city on the rebound. It had just landed the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and wanted Balloonfest to take the city to new and greater heights.
“They wanted to put Cleveland into the Guinness Book of World Records, they wanted to do something bigger and better than anybody else,” said John Grabowski, chief historian at the Western Reserve Historical Society and Case Western Reserve University history professor.
But almost immediately, there was trouble. Strong storms moved through Northeast Ohio the night before causing some of the balloons to release on their own and more inclement weather was heading that way on launch day.
Rather than cancel the event, organizers decided to launch the balloons earlier than planned, just before 2 p.m. At first, the launch seemed successful, said John Rinaldi, who was broadcasting live at the event for the Big Chuck and Lil John Show.
“It was unbelievable. It was a great sight, people were cheering, everybody was happy,” Rinaldi said. But then things began to suddenly change.
“It was overwhelming, balloons start like boiling in the air,” Moss said. “You thought, ‘Wow, we’re gonna drown in these balloons.’”
The 1.5 million colorful balloons began plummeting back down to the ground.
“We drove down the Shoreway, and it was like a multi-colored river down the road. Motorists were running into each other, running into fences,” Zurcher said. “Then Burke Lakefront Airport was even more of a mess. The runway was covered with balloons.”
The airport and Shoreway both had to be temporarily shut down, and he said a bulldozer was brought in to help clear the balloons.
Meteorologist Scott Sabol researched the conditions for Zurcher.
“After looking back at the weather conditions that were present leading up to the balloon launch, there was no way they should have launched those balloons. The front which came in was right out of the north and had a history of producing severe weather,” Sabol said.
Severe storms the night before had caused significant damage across Northeast Ohio and capsized a boat. It washed ashore the morning of the launch, but the two fishermen were still missing.
The U.S. Coast Guard was searching for the men by helicopter and by boat when the balloons began raining down on them. That forced the pilot to land and made it virtually impossible to recover the men.
“I caught the guy flying the Coast Guard helicopter, and he said it was like flying through an asteroid belt. You just couldn’t see,” Zurcher said. “And the balloons on the water looked like heads, and the men weren’t found until several days after the balloons.”
In the aftermath, the widow of one of the men filed a multi-million dollar lawsuit against the United Way and balloon company, which was settled out of court. The owner of some prized horses that were injured after being “spooked” by the balloons also settled a lawsuit.
Although Cleveland did set the record for the most launched balloons at that time, afterward, the Guinness Book of World Records stopped the category altogether.
WFXR’s sister station tried to speak with Treb Heining about the event, but was unable to do so.
Augie Napoli, the current president and CEO of the United Way of Greater Cleveland, sent this statement:
“There is nothing ‘positive’ to say about this event no matter how well intended. Happily, however, we have evolved beyond gimmicks to shine a bright light on the causes and effects of poverty on so many in our community and to encourage the community to respond as they have for over 100 years through their gifts of understanding, engagement and love.”
Over the years, there have been many documentaries on the subject and concerns over the environmental impact of the event, but some of those who witnessed it try to remember the positive aspects too.
“It was an unbelievable day,” Rinaldi said. “Everybody was so happy, thousands of people, from all over and every age and there wasn’t one problem. For me, it was an awesome feeling.”
“One thing you can say about Cleveland, they are always creative,” Moss said. “Doesn’t always work out, but creative, it’s a creative city.”
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