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.

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.

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.


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.

Check out this news clip from the day after.

Did anyone out there in Kinja-land actually see this in person? 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.