Terminal Tower. Lake Erie. Metroparks Zoo. University Circle. The Forest City. All were about to bear witness to an event the like of which had never been seen before.

‘Cleveland, it’s your time. It’s time to say yes, it’s time to say: This is a happening city. We are on the move. We are no longer the butt of jokes.’

Six months of preparations had led up to this point. Cleveland was about to step out of the shadow of Columbus. Under Terminal Tower, a 1920s skyscraper, the tallest in the world outside New York when it was built, sat a temporary structure the size of a city block. Four wire fences and a huge net for a roof. Inside, 2,500 volunteers sat around pipes through which helium gas flowed, inflating one balloon after another. The balloons floated up like embers, joining an enormous blanket of other balloons, almost 1.5 million of them, identical but for their colours. Cleveland had never seen anything like this.

‘Ladies and gentlemen, there is no Mistake on the Lake anymore!’

Cleveland was a major industrial centre of the United States during the first half of the 20th century. This came with drawbacks. By the 60s, pollution had spun out of control. Waste from factories and rubbish from the homes of their workers would all end up in the Cuyahoga River, which flows into Lake Erie. The river quickly caught a reputation for being one of the USA’s dirtiest. On June the 22nd 1969, debris covered in oil caught fire while floating in the river. Soon the whole thing was ablaze, resulting in the surreal sight that was a body of water happily burning away.

From the 70s onwards, Cleveland’s economy declined as the US began to move on from dirty industry. To outsiders, all Cleveland seemed to have left were stories of its grand past and a failing football team. The city acquired the nasty nickname ‘Mistake on the Lake’. Its residents were eager to prove America wrong.     

It seemed like the whole city had come down to savour Cleveland’s moment in the sun. These balloons symbolised Cleveland’s hopes of a better future. Stars of local television Big Chuck and Lil’ John – a dwarf – covered the event in true local TV style, interviewing excitable student volunteers whose hands were bandaged to prevent blisters, and an old lady who had brought two bunches of helium balloons to add to the collection, one of which had been tied to her watch. Her watch had unhooked and been carried away by the balloons.

A world record was about to be broken. United Way of Cleveland, a community charity, organised Balloonfest ’86 as a fundraising event. They had taken over Cleveland city centre with their structure, brought the local community together and now, on September the 27th 1986, everyone was ready for the climax. United Way would release 2 million balloons, smashing the world record for the most balloons released at the same time.

But there was a problem. Weather forecasters warned that a rain storm was approaching Cleveland, potentially scuppering the event and damaging the pavilion. This would be disastrous. There weren’t yet 2 million balloons floating below the net, but seeing as the world record would still be broken at only 1.5 million, the organisers decided to stop inflating early and release them.

Volunteers, spectators and officials hastily convened outside the structure and began a hasty countdown.  Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one…

The net parts. 1.5 million balloons begin billowing out, silently but for the wild cheers of the crowd many metres below.

‘I feel like singing Up, Up and Away!’ screams Lil’ John in ecstasy as the multicoloured cloud of inflated latex begins to slowly envelop Terminal Tower. ‘Let’s hear it for Cleveland!’ shouts Big Chuck. ‘Go Cleveland!’ replies the crowd, electrified.

They had never seen anything like it. No one had. Cleveland had just broken a world record. Enough latex to fill a small office block was now being carried upwards into the air above the city, free to be buffeted by the winds. It was an incredible achievement; one that would certainly put Cleveland on the map. Up, up, up. There was no undoing it, no catching the balloons, no halting their irresistible rise. Helium is lighter than air, as any child knows.   

That remains the case until 32 kilometres above Earth’s surface, where the weight of the air becomes equal to that of the helium. There, the balloon will stop rising and what goes up, finally comes down. When the gas has seeped out of the balloon it begins falling back to Earth and is completely deflated by the time it gets there. But that’s not what happened in Cleveland.

The Cleveland balloons were carried on the breeze right into the approaching storm. The cold front and rain propelled the balloons back towards the ground, still inflated. The cloud had burst. Now the hail of balloons headed towards freeways, rivers, an airport and Lake Erie. A man-made locust plague.

On the freeways, drivers swerved to avoid stray balloons or gazed distractedly at the floating orbs in the sky, the like of which they had never seen before, before crashing into each other. Burke Lakefront Airport had to close for half an hour while balloons were cleared from the runway.

The storm raged and raged. The next day, the families of Raymond Broderick and Bernard Sulzer, two fishermen, reported the men missing. They had left shore an hour before the storm picked up and not returned. Soon someone found their boat. It had been knocking against a harbour wall all night. A search and rescue team headed out into the lake to look for the two men. But the lake was clogged with balloons. For anyone in the water, it would have been wretchedly easy to see the rescue boat in the distance, but for the coast guards, it was impossible to tell floating balloon from bobbing head or orange lifejacket. ‘It’s like trying to find a needle in a haystack here,’ noted one member of the coast guard.

The search was called off. Two days later the drowned bodies of the men washed up on the shore.

Cleveland being in the USA, a number of serious litigation cases followed the debacle. The wife of one fisherman sued United Way for $3.2 million, while the owner of prize horses who the balloons had spooked, causing themselves to permanently injure themselves, sued for $100,000. These cases meant the fundraising event ended up as a net loss to United Way.

Cleveland’s celebration of its vibrant, positive future ended as another embarrassment to the city, and a startling reminder of people’s short-sightedness when they believe they are doing something good. Of those 2,500 smiling and excited volunteers, how many had considered what would happen to their balloons once they were released from the nets? Group mentality conquered; the urge to create a never before seen spectacle which would put their city on the map overwhelmed rational thought.

In 2019, Cleveland has plenty going for it. It has a thriving food culture, having been visited by Anthony Bourdain for an episode of No Reservations in 2007. It is home to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It is ranked as the 17th most walkable city in the USA. United Way is still a large and effective charity organisation, helping people all over the USA get access to healthcare and education. Big Chuck and Lil’ John continued presenting on local TV until 2007 when they retired. The disastrous world record attempt in which they participated still stands as a real World Record 23 years later.

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