On that saturday morning, September 27, 1986, Cleveland was ready for an explosion of wonder.
For six months a Los Angeles company, headed by Treb Heining, had been working to organize the event which would break, in a spectacular way, a weird world record held at the time by Disneyland: in the first hours of the afternoon, a million and a half helium-filled balloons would be released simultaneously in the city sky.
The event was planned by United Way, a nonprofit organization, as part of the fundraising campaign for its activities supporting families in Cleveland.
In Public Square, Heining and his team mounted a huge structure, 250×150 feet wide, supporting a single, huge net built from the same material of the Space Shuttle cargo nets. Under this structure, for hours and hours more than 2.500 students and volunteers had been filling the colored balloons which, held by the net, formed a waving and impressive ceiling. After a first few hours of practice, their sore fingers wrapped in bandage aids, they had begun working automatically, each one of them tying a balloon every 20 seconds. Originally two millions baloons were meant to be prepared, but since some “leaks” had occurred, with several hundreds balloons escaping the net, it was decided to stop at a lower number.
Every precaution had been taken so that the release was completely safe: United Way worked together with the city, the Federal Aviation Administration, the fire and police department, to avoid unpleasant surprises.
Furthermore, the balloons were made of biodegradable latex, and organizers estimated that they would pop or deflate right over Lake Erie, only to decompose quickly and with no environmental impact.
With all this apparently meticulous preparation, no one could suspect that the joyful, colored party could turn into a nightmare.
Weather conditions were not the best: a storm was coming, so the organizers opted for an early release. At 1.50 pm the net was cut loose, and a gigantic cloud of balloons rose up against the buildings and the Terminal Tower, amidst cheering children, the applause and whooping of the crowd.
Like the mushroom cloud from an explosion, expanding in slow motion, the mass ascended in the sky to form a multicolored column.
That is when things took an unexpected turn.
The balloons met a current of cool air which pushed them back down, towards the ground. In little time, the city was completely invaded by a myriad of fluctuating balloons which covered the streets, moving in group, obscuring the sky, preventing drivers from seeing the road and hindering boats and helicopters. According to the witnesses, it felt like moving through an asteroid belt: some cars crashed because drivers steered to avoid a wave of balloons pushed by wind, or because they were distracted by the surreal panorama.
But the worse was yet to come: Raymond Broderick and Bernard Sulzer, two fishermen, had gone out the day before, and were reported missing; the Coast Guard, who was looking for them, spotted their boat near a a breakwater, but had to abandon the search because balloons filled the sky and covered the surface of the water, making it hard for both boats and helicopters.
The two bodies later washed ashore.
During the next days balloons kept raising concern: they caused the temporary shut down of an airport runway, and scared some horses in a pasture so much so that the animals suffered permanent damage. The balloons ended up on the opposite shore of Lake Erie, some 100 km away, so complaints began to come even from Canada. Also because, according to some environmentalists, the plastic was not at all “biodegradable” and would have soiled the coast for at least six months.
Other criticism involved the waste of such large quantities of helium, a gas that is a non-renewable resource on Earth, and which some scientists (including late Nobel Phisics Laureate R. Coleman Richardson) believe there already is a shortage of.
This attempt to create something unforgettable, in the end, was meant to be one of those joyful, purely aesthetic, wonderfully useless experiences that bring out the child in all of us. As laudable this idea was, it turned out to be maybe a little too naive and planned without taking into account with the due consideration all possible consequences. The game ended quite badly.
United Way was sued for several million dollars, turning the fundraising campaign into a failure. The due damages to one of the fishermen’s wife and to the horse breeder were settled for undisclosed terms. This disastrous stunt, which ended in the red and in wide controversy, is the perfect example of a world record nobody will attempt to break again.
Treb Hining and his company, in the meantime, still are in the balloon business, working for the Academy Award, the Super Bowl and many presidential conventions: his team is also in charge of dispersing three thousand pounds of confetti (yep, 100% biodegradable this time) on Times Square, every New Year’s Eve.