Presented by

The Atlantic Selects

The Balloonfest That Went Horribly Wrong

Jun 12, 2018 | 814 videos
Video by Nathan Truesdell

In the popular imagination, balloons often represent freedom and joy. But as every adult knows, there is also a profound disillusionment that accompanies the release of a balloon as a child—namely, what goes up must come down, and often with a loud pop.

And so it went with the 1.5 million balloons that were released in September 1986 over the city of Cleveland. The United Way of Cleveland, a nonprofit, staged a fundraiser in which it attempted to beat Disneyland’s Guinness World Record of the most balloons released simultaneously. But fate intervened, and the result was both crazier and more tragic than anyone could have imagined.

Nathan Truesdell’s short documentary, Balloonfest, depicts the helium-filled spectacle using archival news footage from local television stations. When the balloons are first released, they form a mass of colorful orbs that wraps around Cleveland’s Terminal Tower, by turns resembling a meteorological phenomenon, a mushroom cloud, or a locust infestation. The image is both awe-inspiring and haunting.

The film’s mounting sense of dread prepares us for what happens next: the balloons are promptly brought down by an approaching storm. They wreak havoc on the city, litter Lake Erie, and, tragically, impede a Coast Guard search and rescue mission for two missing fishermen. Balloonfest serves as a sobering reminder of the short-sightedness of humankind.

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to

Author: Emily Buder

About This Series

A showcase of cinematic short documentary films, curated by The Atlantic.