In 1986, the United Way of Cleveland in Ohio decided to organize a fundraising event and at the same time break the world record for the most simultaneous release of balloons set by Anaheim, in California, on the 30th anniversary of Disneyland just the previous year. On the morning of September 27, 1986, and the night before, a crowd of 2,500 students and volunteers filled 1.5 million balloons with helium inside an enormous white plastic balloon bin on the southwest quadrant of the square. A giant net covering the box kept the balloons together. At 1:50 p.m, the restrains were removed and the enormous mass of rubber and gas lifted out of the bin and towards the sky as spectators watched in awe. It was an incredible sight, but only for a while. Then the weather started to play havoc.
The day was overcast with strong winds blowing in the northern direction - nowhere near the ideal weather condition to release so many helium balloons. With a forecast of rainstorm later in the day, the organizers released the balloons early only to have them get caught in the storm clouds above. When the clouds opened, the rain pushed the balloons down and they started dropping all over clogging the land and waterways.
The balloons blanketed Lake Erie hampering the Coast Guard’s search efforts for two men who had been lost on the lake after their boat capsized. The balloons covering the lake surface made it impossible to find the head of any floating person. Their dead bodies later washed ashore, and of the wives sued United Way. The drifting spheres also caused the Burke Lakefront Airport runway to close off for 30 minutes. In Medina County, a woman sued claiming the balloons spooked her Arabian horses resulting in injuries. A couple of car accidents were also reported as drivers swerved to avoid slow motion blizzards of multicolored orbs or took their eyes off the road to gawk at the overhead spectacle.
United Way spent $500,000 organizing the event, and lost millions more in settling lawsuits.
On the event’s 25th anniversary in 2011, a spokeswoman for United Way told cleveland.com: "We would not do a balloon launch ever again. We've learned a lot in the last 25 years."
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