They sought to break a Guinness World Record. Cleveland, the second largest city in the state of Ohio, did it. The brainchild was the executives of a charity called the United Way. They called the event, pompously, Balloonfest ’86. What was it all about? The launching of 1.5 million balloons into the sky.
Treb Heining and Tom Holowach managed the event. They designed a three-story structure that, so as not to be dragged down by the balloons, weighed 20 tons. To prevent the balloons from escaping, they put up a one-piece net. It was manufactured by the same company that built the space shuttle cargo nets.
On September 27, 1986, the area around Public Square was packed to capacity. But the night before the launch, a furious storm raged over Cleveland. The winds were beginning to pick up again and the rain started again. This did not stop the event. At 1:50 p.m. the signal was given. The entire city then witnessed the launch of 1.5 million balloons.
Trouble started when the wind pushed the balloons down. The gale swept them northward, and the rain carried them toward Lake Erie. Traffic chaos ensued, with multiple crashes on the Shoreway, the coastal highway. Burke Lakefront Airport was also affected and had to close. But nothing resembled the tragedy that occurred on Lake Erie. The night before the balloon release, two men went boating. They disappeared, and the Coast Guard searched for them. Helicopters also searched, but the balloons covered the lake and made the search impossible. The bodies were later found.
After all, the 1.4 million balloons achieved the record sought. Cleveland’s goal was achieved, but nobody celebrated. And, moreover, it was short-lived: two years later, the balloon release category was mercifully eliminated by the Guinness Book of World Records.