There’s something inherently fun about trying to set a new world record, especially if doing so as a large group. There’s a collective sense of purpose around the goal, even if the goal is something trivial like making the world’s largest burrito or another similarly silly idea. There’s that little impish grin that comes to one’s face knowing that, if successful, you’re in the annals of human history, even if it’s for hula hooping, undisturbed, for longer than anyone else. And if you’re truly bold, you can include “World Record Holder” on your resume, waiting for a potential employer to take the bait and ask about it.

But not all world record attempts go well. Some, even though having the best of intentions, go horribly wrong. Just ask the United Way, which learned this the hard way in 1986.

The charitable organization wanted to top the record for the most balloons released simultaneously — a PR stunt, as many such world record challenges are. Called “Balloonfest ’86,” the plan was to release 1.5 million balloons over the city of Cleveland, Ohio. The release cost the United Way $500,000 and shut down the airport for half an hour. But otherwise, liftoff went fine. On September 27th of that year, 1.5 million balloons took to the sky in majestic fashion. Color filled the skies above Cleveland, and for a few moments, freckled the heavens as if a rainbow had burst into hundreds of thousands of space-bound dots. It looked like a huge success.

And then, disaster. Those 1.5 million balloons came back down to Earth — and not so majestically. Shortly after the launch, the skies opened and it began to rain. According to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the rains pushed the balloons back down and scattered them throughout the region. Some were pushed south, where a balloon allegedly scared a prized horse — we know that because the horse owner sued the United Way for $100,000 (and eventually settled). Many more littered beaches on the north shore of Lake Erie, polluting the Ontario beachfronts. Much worse, though, were the thousands of balloons that actually landed on Lake Erie, as seen below. They may have led to a tragic result.




As it turned out, the day before the balloon launch, two fisherman went out to the lake and failed to make it back. Their boat was found anchored and otherwise fine on the lake, but the men were nowhere to be found. Per the Plain Dealer, the Coast Guard believed that the boat had capsized temporarily, tossing the pair from their vessel, hurling them into the water. The Coast Guard spent the next three days searching for them, but to no avail. And it’s likely that the balloons which landed in the water obstructed their view — especially because from a distance, a bobbing head and a floating balloon look a lot a like. One of the men’s widows sued the United Way (and others) for $3.2 million, and like, the horse owner, ultimately settled out of court.

The two men’s bodies washed up on shore two weeks later.


Bonus Fact: Little kids love latex balloons — but latex balloons don’t love little kids. In 1997, the New York Times quoted an executive from the National Safe Kids Campaign asserting that after foods, latex balloons are the second-most likely cause of a choking death of a child. Other sources buttress this claim.

From the ArchivesOut of Gas: We’re low on helium. (But we’re doing something about it.)

RelatedA mylar balloon in the shape of a mustache.