1997 Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade

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The corner of 72nd Street and Central Park West (photographed in 2008), site of the near-fatal lamppost collision

The 71st Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade was held on November 27, 1997, under high winds, which led to multiple mishaps involving the parade's signature balloons. A Cat in the Hat balloon collided with a lamppost, knocking off its arm and sending a spectator into a month-long coma. There were at least four injuries overall, including another serious head wound from the same incident. The Cat in the Hat was one of several balloons that lost limbs or were otherwise damaged, including the Barney the Dinosaur and Pink Panther balloons, which were forcibly deflated by officers of the New York City Police Department (NYPD).

The incidents led to scrutiny by Mayor Rudy Giuliani and changes in the parade, including a ban on larger balloons such as the Cat in the Hat. The most seriously injured attendee settled a lawsuit out of court. The image of the Barney balloon's destruction by police knives and boots—its so-called "murder"[1][2][3]—has found enduring popularity through social media, owing partly to popular hatred of Barney.

Background[edit]

The Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade has taken place annually since 1924, except 1942 through 1944.[4]: 9, 55–57  In 1928,[5] the first giant balloons, designed by Tony Sarg, debuted to great excitement. Giant balloons of popular characters would become the hallmark of the parade.[4]: 9–11, 14 

Parade day[edit]

The 1997 running of the parade featured 17 giant balloons, 18 novelty balloons, and seven "falloons" (float–balloons) guided by a combined 1,200 handlers, as well as 21 floats, 6 toy floats, 44 teams of clowns, 14 marching bands, and 30 costumed characters.[6] There were four new balloons: the television and book character Arthur; a first-of-its-kind three-character balloon featuring the Rugrats characters Tommy Pickles, Chuckie, and Spike;[7] Bumpé, a Swedish cow;[7] and an original creation, Ms. Petula Pig, a ballerina.[8][6] The new falloons were the World of Wiggle, sponsored by Jello, and Dr. Seuss's Grinch.[6][9] Two non-falloon floats, one related to the film Anastasia and the other about a calf named Annabelle who wants to fly, also debuted.[9]

The day of the parade saw winds with gusts over 40 miles per hour (64 km/h).[10] When weather presenter Al Roker described the winds as gale force shortly before the parade, one Macy's official objected and said that windspeeds were going down. Officials discussed with the NYPD whether to scrap the balloon portion of the parade, but decided to retain them as windspeeds were decreasing.[11] Macy's officials told the police that they could handle whatever might arise.[12] However, speeds returned to figures as high as 43 miles per hour (69 km/h) during the parade, and balloon handlers struggled to maintain control of them, "h[anging] on for dear life" in the words of The New York Times.[11] Significant incidents then occurred with the Pink Panther, Barney, and Cat in the Hat balloons, before a crowd of over one million.[13] According to the Times, "perhaps a dozen" balloons were damaged overall, several losing limbs to wind-related issues.[11]

The Pink Panther balloon began to veer and implode at Broadway and 42nd Street. An NYPD inspector called for a knife, which another officer handed to him.[11] He then sliced in to the balloon's tail with the five-inch blade, which caused it to stabilize[11] while also sending pieces of pink rubber into the crowd.[13] The collapsing balloon fell onto its handlers, which according to unconfirmed reports knocked a handler unconscious.[11]

After the grounding of the Pink Panther balloon, the NYPD removed the last two balloons from the parade for safety reasons.[13] Many balloon handlers whose balloons had been downed assisted with the reining-in of those that were still aloft.[11]

Home video of deflation
image icon "Thanksgiving '97. The day Barney was killed"

At 51st Street, handlers struggled to maintain control of the Barney balloon,[2] which was punctured by a lamppost before crashing onto the handlers.[11][1] One handler said that "Everything turned purple", while another said "Barney attacked us".[11] Officers swarmed the falling balloon and repeatedly stabbed it and stomped on it to release the helium that held it aloft, to cheers from the crowd.[11][13] One child was quoted as saying "Barney's dead! He's dead! Yeah!".[13]

Most dramatically, at 72nd Street and Central Park West, the six-story-tall Cat in the Hat balloon twice struck the arm of a lamppost, which according to one onlooker was already wobbling in the high wind and according to another had been struck by a preceding balloon as well. The arm fell, injuring four people, with two sustaining serious head wounds.[11][12] One of the two suffered a nearly fatal skull fracture and was in a coma for 24 days.[14][12] The two more minor injuries consisted of facial bruising.[11] The Cat in the Hat balloon was pulled from the parade at 36th Street along with the Quik Bunny balloon.[11]

Aftermath[edit]

Rudy Giuliani in 2000

New York mayor Rudy Giuliani quickly announced a task force to investigate the incidents.[13] Macy's significantly increased its training of volunteers, who previously had received about two hours' worth, and held volunteers to both lessons on balloon physics and physical fitness standards (with free three-month gym membership). For the 1998 parade, lampposts had their arms removed, trees were pruned, and a meteorologist's counsel was retained. Balloons were limited to dimensions of 70 feet high, 78 feet long and 40 feet wide, ending the presence of the Cat in the Hat, Pink Panther, and Woody Woodpecker balloons. Balloons were tethered to two 800-pound vehicles, rather than being led only by pedestrians, and a police officer was assigned to each balloon's team, with the authority to remove it from the parade if needed.[14]

The woman who was left comatose for a month filed a $395 million lawsuit against Macy's, New York City, and the lamppost's manufacturer. According to the suit, she suffered permanent brain damage as a result of the injury.[14] She settled the suit in 2001 for an undisclosed sum, shortly before jury selection was to take place; the city was not responsible for any part of the settlement.[12] The woman received further media attention in 2006, when Cory Lidle's plane crashed into her apartment building, a few blocks away from the site of her 1997 injury; her unit, struck by the engine, was burnt, but was unoccupied at the time.[15]

The spectacle of the Barney balloon being stabbed and stomped by NYPD officers re-entered the public consciousness after a home video was posted to YouTube in 2013 (see above), and later to TikTok.[1] Owing in part to hatred of Barney, the video has enjoyed enduring popularity in the years since.[16] Many commentators, including the uploader of the home video, humorously characterize the incident as Barney the character having been murdered.[1][2][3] In 2022, People ranked the Barney deflation as the "biggest balloon blunder" in the parade's 98 years.[17]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d Burton, Jamie (November 24, 2022). "Barney's Thanksgiving Day Parade 'tragedy' resurfaces—'Childhood destroyed'". Newsweek. Archived from the original on November 19, 2023. Retrieved November 19, 2023.
  2. ^ a b c Miller, Matt (November 25, 2015). "Barney Died a Violent Death at the 1997 Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade". Esquire. Archived from the original on November 19, 2023. Retrieved November 19, 2023.
  3. ^ a b Baio, Ariana (November 24, 2022). "Resurfaced clip shows Barney being murdered at Thanksgiving Day parade". Indy100. The Independent. Archived from the original on November 19, 2023. Retrieved November 19, 2023.
  4. ^ a b Grippo, Robert (2004). Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. San Francisco: Arcadia Publishing. OL 3313633M.
  5. ^ "The Akron Beacon Journal 23 Nov 1947, page Page 21". Newspapers.com. Retrieved February 13, 2024.
  6. ^ a b c Shustack, Mary (November 26, 1997). "Excitement balloons at Macy's Parade". The Herald Statesman. p. 3F. Retrieved November 19, 2023 – via Newspapers.com.
  7. ^ a b Barclay, Kelly (November 25, 1997). "Macy's Thanksgiving Parade flying high on NBC". Saint Elmo Banner. TVData Features Syndicate. § Market Place, p. 1. Retrieved November 19, 2023 – via Newspapers.com.
  8. ^ Bryant, Rebecca (November 14, 1997). "Winter Wonders: Pigs fly, a Greek hero skates and, oh yes, Santa comes to town". Newsday. p. B17. Retrieved November 19, 2023 – via Newspapers.com.
  9. ^ a b "Thanksgiving Day ritual: Spiderman, Cat in the Hat and the Grinch take part in annual Macy's parade". The Central New Jersey Home News. November 23, 1997. § The Guide, p. 10. Retrieved November 19, 2023 – via Newspapers.com.
  10. ^ "Thanksgiving Day 1997 Was a Wild One for Macy's Parade Balloons". The Weather Channel. November 18, 2023. Archived from the original on November 19, 2023. Retrieved November 19, 2023.
  11. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Martin, Douglas (November 28, 1997). "Macy's Parade of Balloons Gets One Thing It Doesn't Need: Wind". The New York Times. Archived from the original on November 19, 2023. Retrieved November 19, 2023.
  12. ^ a b c d Saulny, Susan (March 7, 2001). "Woman Hurt in '97 Macy's Parade Settles Suit". The New York Times. Archived from the original on November 19, 2023. Retrieved November 19, 2023.
  13. ^ a b c d e f Neumeister, Larry (November 29, 1997). "Balloon accident spawns task force in New York". The Record. Associated Press. p. A-4. Retrieved November 19, 2023 – via Newspapers.com.
  14. ^ a b c "Macy's presents safer parade". CNN. November 26, 1998. Archived from the original on November 19, 2023. Retrieved November 19, 2023.
  15. ^ "Bad luck strikes twice for New York woman". The Seattle Times. October 14, 2006. Archived from the original on November 19, 2023. Retrieved November 19, 2023.
  16. ^ Gallagher, Danny (November 22, 2022). "25 Years Ago, Barney Died During the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade". Dallas Observer. Archived from the original on November 19, 2023. Retrieved November 19, 2023.
  17. ^ Hogan, Kate (November 22, 2022). "A Look Back at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade's Biggest Balloon Blunders". People. Archived from the original on November 19, 2023. Retrieved November 19, 2023.