BalloonFest ’86 – The Cleveland Balloon Disaster

Sometimes an attempt at a world record ends in disaster and lawsuits. At least, that was the case when an attempt at the World’s largest balloon launch was attempted in downtown Cleveland in 1986. In this episode, we tell the tragic story of the 1986 Cleveland BalloonFest and then play the quick quiz with Ballon Guy, Rob Balchunas! 


Treb Heining has made balloons his life’s work. He got his start selling Mickey Mouse balloons at Disneyland and helped with the grand opening where Disneyland released 50,000 balloons into the air. He was just a young boy at the time, but this was the start to a life of making balloons into words, shapes, columns and art. His claim to fame is the invention of the balloon column, a structure of connected balloons that’s often used to create large shapes, arches, and words out of strings of balloons. So if you’ve ever been at an event, whether it be a corporate gala or a high school prom and taken your picture or walked through an arch of balloons, Treb is the guy who invented that. He invented it for a private birthday party for Cher’s son – yes that Cher. Her son Elijah Blue was turning 3 and Treb created a blue column of balloons, bent over into an arch above Cher’s tennis courts behind her home in Malibu.

Treb Heining is the hero of our story today, but also maybe the villain. He had really made a name for himself doing not only these large balloon sculptures, but also balloon releases, like the one he orchestrated for the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. If you wanted to release thousands of balloons into the air for an event, he was THE guy to call. 

So when the United Way wanted to use balloons for a fundraiser in 1986, Treb and his company, Balloon Art by Treb, got the call. The United Way of Cleveland wanted to raise money using some sort of large scale spectacle and the venue was the Cleveland BalloonFest in the downtown Public Square. They had hired Tom Holowatch as the event manager and the whole goal was to make Cleveland cool again. It had gotten a bad rap from a series of unfortunate environmental incidents in which the Cuyahoga River was so polluted, it actually caught fire multiple times – the most notable in 1969. They were trying to use this massive balloon launch as a way to change Cleveland’s national identity. Treb flew in from Los Angeles to meet with the United Way of Cleveland and Holowatch and they told him how they had a vision of releasing two million balloons into the air. The story is a little hazy as to whether they had the goal of a world record, but we’ll get to that in a bit. Treb was hired and paid a huge sum of money by The United Way and their sponsors to organize the launch. It was scheduled to take place in September of that year. He spent the next 6 months planning and preparing. 

A rainstorm was approaching and the decision had been made to move the balloon launch up to 1:50pm. So when the time came, a huge crowd counted down and balloons were released. And that’s when the chaos began.

The balloons were released into the air. 100,000 people had gathered in downtown Cleveland to watch the spectacle before the incoming storm. The balloons lifted into the air, staying in a clump – a sort of nebulous colorful cloud that immediately wrapped itself around the iconic Terminal Tower. But where these balloons would normally continue lifting and dispersing, they collided with some unusual weather conditions. A front of cold air and rain changed the way the helium balloons behaved and instead of floating away, they quickly sank back down and floated around downtown Cleveland. Nearly a million and a half balloons were now falling back down to earth. 

And let’s talk about what’s in downtown Cleveland. There’s the Burke Lakefront Airport, a municipal airport right on the shoreline. The balloons fell onto the tarmacs and runway, causing the airport to completely shut down for half an hour while employees tried to clear the balloons from the area. Nearby, the Memorial Shoreway road was filled with balloons. Some traffic stopped to watch. Others had their vision completely obscured, sending cars off the road, crashing into fences. There were so many balloons, the city had to get bulldozers to clear the road. Downtown roads and highways became completely stand-still congested because of the falling balloons. Troopers reported multiple collisions. Some of the balloons did make it away from Cleveland. A farmer in Medina County, Ohio sued the United Way of Cleveland because they landed in a pasture spooking and permanently injuring some horses. 

Lake Erie was littered with the balloons for weeks. They washed up on the shore of Cleveland, even floated all the way to Ontario, where people reported picking up thousands of balloon scraps on the shore. The damage caused to the ecosystem of Lake Erie was difficult to calculate, but it’s safe to say 1.4 million pieces of non-biodegradable latex is horrible for the environment. 

But perhaps the worst of all of it was what was happening on Lake Erie. Hundreds of thousands of balloons landed in the lake and were bobbing up and down on the surface of the water. At that same time, Raymond Broderick and Bernard Sulzer were missing. They had taken their 16-foot fishing boat out on the lake the day before and had never returned. Their families were panicking and reported them missing. When the Coast Guard started searching Lake Erie, they quickly found the boat. Broderick and Sulzer were nowhere to be seen. And as they scanned across the water for the men, it was useless. All they saw anywhere were colorful balloons and after 3 days of searching, the search was called-off. Sadly, the mens bodies washed ashore some time later and one of their widows ended up suing the United Way and Balloon Art by Treb for $3.2 Million dollars. They settled for an undisclosed amount, as did Louise Nowakowski, the owner of the horses in Medina. 

This was meant to be a fundraiser and turned out to be anything but. Besides the many accidents and tragic loss of life, the cost of the event itself overshot the budget – by a lot. So there wasn’t going to be any money made to begin with. But then the various lawsuits just made it worse.

Treb Heining is still regarded as one of the world’s ground-breaking balloon artists. And the Cleveland Balloon launch did make it into the Guinness Book of World Records, whether they were trying to or not. The 1988 version of the book calls it the “largest ever mass balloon release”, with 1,429,643 balloons launched. But Guinness also changed their criteria for events like this because of how poorly it went. Guinness no longer measures environmentally unsound events like balloon releases.

So whenever you see an event where balloons are launched into the air, you have an interesting story to tell about the most disastrous balloon launch in history. The Internet Says it’s True.

Bonus episodes and content available at

Review this podcast at

For special discounts and links to our sponsors, visit

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Forgotten history, bizarre tales & facts that seem too strange to be true! Host Michael Kent asks listeners to tell him something strange, bizarre or surprising that they've recently learned and he gets to the bottom of it! Every episode ends by playing a gameshow-style quiz game with a celebrity guest. Part of the WCBE Podcast Experience.


Michael Kent PatreonListen to TONS of bonus content including:
• Unedited videos of guest interviews and quizzes
• BONUS Episodes
• Giveaways and swag
• Special Shoutouts
• Producer Credits
Sign up to access all of it today!

What have you recently learned?

Check out these sponsors!

FATCO sells organic & responsibly-made tallow-based skincare products. For centuries, humans used tallow in skin moisturizers and healing balms, but unfortunately, the topical application of these fats seemed to stop around the same time that animal fats stopped being considered part of a healthy diet. Get 15% off by using my promo code: INTERNET or click HERE.