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NYC Parade Again Marred by Accident

The Nation

Two are injured by a streetlight clipped off by one balloon's ropes. The mishap renews concerns about the safety of the Thanksgiving event.

November 25, 2005|Nicole Gaouette | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — A super-sized balloon sponsored by M&M veered out of control at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York on Thursday, injuring two people and raising questions about the safety procedures governing the annual spectacle.

One of the balloon's ropes clipped the head of a streetlamp off its pole, sending it crashing down to the crowd below.

Though New York police had put extra counter-terrorism measures in place for the annual parade, there had also been concern about controlling the balloons, some of which are six stories tall, in winds that ranged from 15 to 20 mph. News reports before the parade had raised questions about whether safety and training standards for the event may have slipped.

"We have to look and see what procedures we have to change, if any, before the parade next year," said Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.

The mishap, near the end of the 2 1/2 -mile parade route, was reminiscent of a 1997 accident that led the city to establish strict rules about balloon handling that barred their use if winds got too strong. The accident also reflects a long-running tension between keeping the much-loved parade safe and retaining its trademark balloons, which often dwarf the buildings they float past.

City officials have promised an investigation into the incident. Though it isn't clear whether wind played a part, parade organizers had directed the volunteer handlers to use shorter tethers for the floats. Handlers were hauling the 515-pound M&M balloon past the corner of West 43rd Street and Seventh Avenue when a tether got tangled in the streetlamp.

"It happened so fast," spectator Karim Simmons told the Associated Press. "I said, 'Oh, my God! It dropped like a rock.' "

The lamp hit an 11-year-old girl, leaving her with scrapes on her head, and her 26-year-old sister. The woman, who uses a wheelchair, needed six stitches to the back of her head.

Bloomberg said neither of the injuries was serious, and both victims were released from a hospital after treatment.

A Macy's spokeswoman declined to comment Thursday on the incident.

The safety standards put in place after the 1997 accident limited the balloons' size and their use in winds stronger than 23 mph. The rules mandated that there be 50 to 60 handlers for each balloon, an increase from the 40 to 60 required earlier. A police officer was assigned to accompany each balloon.

Also, lampposts along the route were to be removed, modified or replaced to avoid the sort of accident that happened Thursday.

Macy's had also committed to ensure that its balloon handlers were better-trained. But a recent report by the New York Times charged that the department store had been easing away from that pledge.

Many of this year's 1,500 handlers got virtually no instruction, according to the report. Instead, they received a sixpage pamphlet with illustrated charts. And though handlers were given physical fitness tests in 1998, this year the volunteers were merely asked to complete a health form.

The parade is famous for its marching bands, high-kicking Rockettes and celebrities. But giant balloons have been its hallmark since the Goodyear company's aerospace division began stitching together various cartoon figures in 1927.

The pageant began drawing more spectators after it was immortalized in the 1947 film "Miracle on 34th Street," and NBC started televising the annual ritual in 1948.

The crowd that turned out Thursday to see the parade's first Latino-themed balloon -- Dora the Explorer -- and other inflatables was estimated at 2.5 million.

The numbers make safety more of a challenge. So does the size of the balloons, which can reach 40 feet wide, 78 feet long and 70 feet tall.

New York's spindly steel lampposts have often been vulnerable to the balloons' bulk.

In 1986, a Raggedy Ann balloon careened into a lamppost, hurling a light to the street below. The same year, a Superman balloon lost a hand when it flew into some Central Park trees. No one was hurt in either incident.

In 1993, Sonic the Hedgehog bumped into a lamppost, and the debris injured a 10-year-old girl and an off-duty police officer. A year later, Barney the dinosaur tore his side on one of the lighting fixtures. And in 1995, Dudley the Dragon, the balloon leading the parade, speared itself on a lamppost and deflated in an accident that showered the crowd with broken glass.

In the 1997 parade, 39-mph winds turned the balloons into a danger. The Cat in the Hat knocked a lamppost into the crowd, injuring four and leaving one of them permanently brain-damaged.

A police officer had to unsheathe his knife and stab a Pink Panther balloon into submission, while a group of officers stomped and stabbed a Barney balloon they worried would menace the crowd.

In the aftermath, a mayoral task force put together the new safety standards. Then-Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani floated a proposal to ban the balloons in bad weather or to shrink them. New Yorkers fervently disagreed and the ideas were dropped.

"You can't mess with tradition," one fan complained to the New York Daily News.

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