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the occasions lady and

A Thanksgiving Parade to Remember
by Audrey Poff, illustration by Brittney Guest

I’ve only had the pleasure of attending the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade once in my lifetime. Although I enjoy watching the parade at home on Thanksgiving morning, I was in awe of every detail of the parade in person.

My sister and her family were living in Pennsylvania at the time, and we flew up to spend the holiday with them in November 1997. We left their home before daylight Thanksgiving morning and drove to a nearby station, where we boarded a train for the trip into New York City. I only had two kids at that time. Emma was only 15 months old, so she stayed behind with my niece, Becca. Adam was almost 5 years old, which was old enough to make the trip into the city with the help of my sister, brother-in-law and my youngest niece, Leah.

I don’t remember a lot of the details from that trip 21 years ago, but a few random things stand out. I remember the coat Adam was wearing – probably because it was new and I thought it looked adorable on him. (It’s a mom thing.) I remember that The Grinch was the featured balloon in the parade that year because I still have the replica that I purchased with my sister at Macy’s that year. And, I remember high winds whipping debris into the air throughout the parade. We didn’t realize until after the parade, however, that it was so windy that a woman watching the parade was nearly killed that year.

As detailed by The New York Times, 39-mph winds caused the six-story Cat in the Hat balloon to crash into a lamppost at 72nd street and Central Park West at the 1997 parade. The incident caused debris to fall, injuring four people and putting one of them into a 24-day coma. After the parade, Macy’s promised to increase training for its balloon handlers and paid for the replacement of dozens of lampposts so that they’d be less likely to be snagged by future balloon ropes. In addition, a government panel recommended certain restrictions on the size and functioning of parade balloons, as well as more regulation of the parade by the city itself. The spectator who suffered brain damage sued the city for $395 million and settled for an “undisclosed sum” four years later.

The Cat in the Hat wasn’t the only balloon that had trouble during the 1997 parade. After high winds caused Barney to sway dangerously, police officers along the route stabbed the balloon for safety, scaring nearby children. Those same high winds caused The Pink Panther balloon to begin imploding on the parade route, so an officer stabbed it, as well, during the same parade.

Although there have been balloon fires, tears and other mishaps in the parade’s long history, fortunately, injuries have been limited.

In 1993, high winds caused Sonic the Hedgehog to crash into a lamppost and then into an off-duty police officer and young girl. The pair suffered only minor injuries, but the balloon suffered extensive damage. In 2011, a new Sonic balloon was designed in a more modern fashion to celebrate Sonic’s 20th anniversary before it was retired after the 2014 parade.

In 2005, a 515-pound M&M balloon traveling through Times Square tipped towards an office building and caught onto a streetlight on 43rd street, causing debris to fall and strike two sisters. Concerns were reportedly raised earlier in the parade, when some witnesses noticed other balloons swaying before the M&M balloon came along. This prompted a city investigation to adjust parade balloon safety rules that were already in place. Both sisters were injured. Their compensation was reported to be a lifetime supply of M&Ms.

My sister passed away in 2006, so although I no longer get to reminisce with her about that trip, it is one of my favorite Thanksgiving memories. We managed to enjoy the parade without being struck by falling debris or having to witness the intentional slashing of Barney or The Pink Panther. I hope to return to New York for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade one day, but, windy or not, you probably won’t find me watching those massive balloons from underneath a lamppost.