That Time Cleveland Released 1.5 Million Balloons and Chaos Ensued

Balloons! They're fun, delightfully whimsical environmental disasters. And in 1986, a mass balloon release in Cleveland went really, really wrong, when 1.5 million helium-filled floaters were let loose into the sky, got caught in a storm, drifted down to earth, and caused a hell of a lot of problems.

That Time Cleveland Released 1.5 Million Balloons and Chaos Ensued

The whole crazy scheme—known as Balloonfest '86—was a fundraising effort organized by the United Way, an attempt to break the world record for biggest simultaneous launch. Disneyland's 30th Birthday, the year before in Anaheim, was the previous champion.

[Check out our web chat with Balloonfest '86 project manager Tom Holowach in Kinja, here]

Thousands of volunteers worked a full night and morning in a fenced-in area covered with a loose net "ceiling" in the central Public Square. Before the big tah-dah, the scene had evolved to look like some kind of writhing, oversized ball-pit monster; when inclement weather threatened the timing, the decision was made to let 'er rip.

That Time Cleveland Released 1.5 Million Balloons and Chaos Ensued

For a while, it was an incredible display. Photographer Thom Sheridan captured the surreal event on film, and the images are unbelievable—somehow equal parts genuinely heart-lifting expression of wonder, horror-film urban infestation, and terrifying unidentifiable civic explosion.

That Time Cleveland Released 1.5 Million Balloons and Chaos Ensued

That Time Cleveland Released 1.5 Million Balloons and Chaos Ensued

That Time Cleveland Released 1.5 Million Balloons and Chaos Ensued

Then the "asteroid field" of airborne debris clouded the sky, shut down a runway at a local airport, interrupted Coast Guard attempts to rescue a pair of fisherman, spooked some prize-winning horses, and generally made a mess of un-biodegradable [edit: apparently the balloons were biodegradable, fwiw!] garbage on land.

That Time Cleveland Released 1.5 Million Balloons and Chaos Ensued

Check out this news clip from the day after.

Did anyone out there in Kinja-land actually see this in person? Cleveland.com gathered some great eye-witness accounts a few years back, and for those of us who weren't there, Sheridan's pics are a wonderful testament to good intentions gone wrong. [Viral Forest]

[Check out our web chat with Balloonfest '86 project manager Tom Holowach in Kinja, here]

All photos published with permission from Thom Sheridan. Please do not reproduce.