Armenian political rally ends in tragedy when political hydrogen balloons burst into flames

144 people were burned at a political rally in the Armenian capital of Yerevan last Friday when bunches of hydrogen balloons bearing political slogans burst into flames. An Agence France-Presse story without a byline reports:

“The balloons exploded and caught fire after people holding the bunches released them from their hands into the air,” a witness told AFP.

It was not immediately clear what caused the explosions although police said they were looking into various potential reasons including the “improper storage of flammable substances”.

...The promotional balloons were decorated with the governing party’s election slogan “Let’s believe in change”.

Hydrogen balloons? Really? Is this a thing?

Exploding hydrogen balloons at Armenian political rally injure many (via JWZ)


  1. This is indeed a horrible event, but whether such an obvious human error (or stupidity) counts as “tragedy” is anyone’s guess – to me, it’s simply a bad thing that happened

      1. I thought that was still a bit of a puzzle. Hydrogen burns quickly and cleanly, and wouldn’t have created quite the fireshow the Hindenburg became. I recall the current contender is the coating they used on the outside of the blimp.

        I guess we’re either going to have to get used to no helium on the planet anymore, flammable balloons, or no floaty balloons.

        1. Aircraft dope, commonly used to coat fabric-skinned aircraft(available for the purpose at hobby shops to this day) is crazy flammable.

          In this case, it wouldn’t entirely surprise me if some sort of rubber or elastomeric polymer was what fell, still burning and all nice and sticks-to-the-flesh-y on the crowd.

          1.  Most likely. Hydrogen burns with an almost-invisible flame. Those orange-coloured flames you see in the video are caused by burning carbon, from the balloons themselves.

        2. Mythbusters did an experiment on this, using a mini-Hindenburg filled with hydrogen (but no iron/aluminium doping), another filled with helium (with iron/aluminium coating) and a third with both hydrogen and iron/aluminium coating.  

          Seeing as their sample size was one in each case, the results may be somewhat suspect.  But the Miniberg filled with helium burned far, far too slow.  The Miniberg filled with hydrogen burned much quicker, with the last burning slightly quicker than the hydrogen-no-coating version.  

          What struck me most, however, was that the last simulation included a sparking effect, where the coating ignited and sometimes drifted away, very similar to that seen in the actual footage of the disaster.  The conclusion I took away was that the coating played only a very small role in the disaster, though it did add interesting visuals.

          1st Miniberg:
          2nd Miniberg:    
          3rd Miniberg:

          1. I recall watching a documentary on the Hindenberg where they managed to get some of the original fabric from the same lot used on the Hindenburg that had been treated, but not put on the airframe, or something.  It was placed in a frame and ignited with a spark, and burned like gasoline. 

      2. I think the price was extra-high at the time because  the US wouldn’t export He to Nazi Germany. 

          1. Nope youre all wrong, H blew up and left, He flew away, and Li oxidized into nothing.

  2. The NY Times story on this included this line:

    “Nikolai Grigoryan, the deputy director of Armenia’s rescue service, told the Novosti Armenia news agency that the balloons had been filled with helium and were ignited by a bystander’s cigarette. However, helium is an inert gas that does not burn.”

  3. Take an old wine bottle, add about three inches of lye (you can get it anywhere that has kitchen cleaners, next to the draino) dissolved in water. Cut up a couple square feet of aluminum foil and drop it in. Stretch a party balloon over the top of the bottle and wait for it to inflate. When it’s full, pull it off the bottle and tie it. Three minute hydrogen balloon.

    1.  …then, tape a match head to the side of the balloon and attach a few inches of  twisted-up steel wool (cuz it won’t blow out in the wind), and wait until the wind is gently blowing over ol’man Taylor’s house, light it and release, and then wait giggling… *womp* out he races with his broom yelling at you “dirty kids” for something other than your baseball landing in his hydrangeas for a change.   (next up:  “nitrogen triiodide and the wild times in the culvert”)

      1. When my buddy had the key to the high school chemistry supply closet, we stole big bottles of pure iodine and ammonium hydroxide, and whipped up a huge batch of nitrogen triiodide.  We poured out the saturated solution on the sidewalk well in advance of class changing, so that the crystals would be dry and ready.  

        Such joy as classes let out, and the ground snapped and popped and smoked beneath their shoes.   Then terror as we saw one girl approach in bare feet (it was the 70’s).  But she somehow missed all the crystals, she must have walked in someone else’s footprints.  Good times…

        1. Also in the 70s we scattered it around the stage before an evening performance of a school play we were involved in. I’d forgotten until this moment. A rare happy moment in a miserable school life in a UK public (private) school.

    2. Or conversely instead of using an ultra strong base, you could use HCl acid in the form of  The Works toilet bowl cleaner. 

      We “experimented” with soda bottles, tin foil, and toilet bowl cleaner….

      -From experience the cheaper the foil the better.
      -If you need it faster than a few minutes use a small chunk of magnesium firestarter.  (But be warned, the solution will get hot enough to burn you.)

      1. Also, kids, check your HCl percentage on the label.  The Works with the blue cap is at least twice the concentration of any of the competitors I could find in my local department store.

      1. kangarara’s point was maybe they used hydrogen because helium is expensive and we’re running out of it.

        1. The US might be, but that’s because we need the salt domes the Navy used to store the helium to store natural gas now.

          1. Do you mean to tell us that the US government is soon to be inertless? 

      1. Yes, but the stockpiles are running out and much of the supply of helium is being diverted to the LHC. Helium is getting stupid expensive right now.

      1. We would actually mine the moon first, it’s got tons of helium stored up from billions of years of being hit by solar winds without any atmosphere.

        1. The problem is that, after three years in isolation mining the helium, most people would flip out. Plus the retirement bonuses would out of necessity be extravagant.

          There must be some way around that. There must be!

          1.  after three years in isolation mining the helium, most people would flip out.

            Me. XBox. Skyrim. Problem solved. (Still haven’t finished Oblivion, or Fallout 3, or Saint’s Row, or…)

          2. Halloween_Jack, you may have missed a reference there.

            In completely unrelated news, Moon is a fun movie.

          3. My favourite scifi flick in quite a while.

            Currently experiencing goosebumps remembering it. The music was bloody excellent.

          1.  All they need to do is make the hole on the near side, and it will blow away in a big loopy helix when the drill is withdrawn.

          2. Or float away due to lost ambient attraction. The lack of gas matter extracted could lessens the moon’s whole mass, allowing it to drifts off, very slowly. Eventually, the waters would never tide with ebb and flow.

          3. Geeze, BombBlastLightningWaltz, what a downer.  I prefer the big loopy helix idea.

    1. Arguably, given helium’s scarcity and near-absolute non-renew-ability, the stuff is far too cheap.

      It’s too light to remain in the atmosphere for long, so what escapes is generally lost for good, and waiting for more to be produced by alpha decay or fusion is tedious on a geologic timescale. It also happens to be a uniquely capable cryogen and a nice shield gas. Bring on the hydrogen balloons.

  4. Seriously? What do you expect when you fill balloons with political hydrogen? The regular stuff is volatile enough, but political hydrogen is just looking to cause problems.

  5. This has happened many times over the years. Someone sees a large canister that says “hydrogen” and they read “helium”. They fill a balloon with it, and the balloon floats as it should. They fill a bunch more balloons.

    The thing that is hard to figure out is how the balloons ignited. A hydrogen-filled balloon will not ignite without a flame and a ready source of oxygen.

    “Dirty tricks” sounds plausible, unfortunately.

    1.  Yeah. and people always line up in an orderly line throught the middle of a contentious rally with their helium balloons. Every time, without fail. In a near perfect line.

    2. How hard is it to figure out when it be when everyone in the crowd was probably smoking? As for ready source of oxygen, how about: air?

      If you’re going dirty tricks/conspiracy angle, it’s finding out who supplied the H2 tanks. But it still smells like incompetence/negligence, not conspiracy.

    3. My thought was more along the line of high powered laser pointer…
      Don’t know if that we create enough of a source of ignition or not.

      1. Although a fairly decent rule of thumb, too many folks heeding it are apt to let a great deal of malice go unanswered.

        Plus, it’s a blurry line; what’s altruism if not enlightened self-interest?

    4. If you have a flame the oxygen in the atmosphere will be enough to sustain complete combustion of a balloon full of hydrogen.

      We used to fill balloons up with pure hydrogen all the time in high school physics class and light them indoors. Not a big deal. You get a big WHOOSH and that is it. Large orange fireball and then nothing.

      Now if you fill a balloon with some hydrogen and then add oxygen you can get a big bang. We filled a giant (4 foot diameter) balloon with oxygen in high school, took it out to the parking lot, attached a fuse, lit it and let go. The thing took off into the air and twenty seconds later there was a huge BOOM. That could have done some damage had it been near something.

  6. Improper storage of flammable substances = storing them in a balloon near lots of people.

  7. All things considered hydrogen balloons burning overhead has as favorable a spectacle to ouch ratio as anything I can think of, but it’s not the sort of thing you want to happen unexpectedly, or with a bald head, nylon windbreaker, or hairspray nearby. 

    Setting off a drycleaning bag full of  hydrogen at the end of a xxx* foot string was a fun outdoor party trick when I was a kid. These were the same sort of parties where someone would throw an old vw engine into the bonfire,  so a flaming gasbag wasn’t even close to the craziest thing happening.

    *if you try this at home , figure out what is a reasonable length of string on your own

    1. Probably more likely than the dirty tricks, but then again, Watergate started with a ho-hum burglary.

  8. From what video we have, this looks odd. As mentioned upthread, Hydrogen burns cleanly almost without a visible flame.  That yellow flame looks much more like a hydrocarbon flame, burning in insufficient oxygen. I suppose it could be partially due to the latex all going up in flames, but this looks big.

    1. Several people have mentioned the fact hydrogen burns very clean, but that technically only works in a stoichiometric environment.  Here you’d have a bubble of relatively pure H2 pushing outward.  Only the leading edge of the expanding sphere of hydrogen would have contact with any oxygen.  The color may be do to an incomplete burn as the flame front and oxygen move inward toward the center of the hydrogen sphere.

      I’m willing to be if you mixed the correct ration of hydrogen to oxygen in a balloon and ignited it, you’d see very little flame.  (Of course the balloon probably wouldn’t float either.)

      1. It floats just fine. In the correct ratio it is still one third hydrogen. And yes, you see a big flash. A balloon of pure hydrogen on the other hand produces an orange fireball in my experience.

    2.  The blue flame in the above video looks to me identical to the one in the following:

      1.  There isn’t any blue flame visible in either, both are yellow, with some hints of red that might actually be violet. It would look quite different in a spectrogram, no doubt.

  9. When I was a kid we lived in Jakarta and there were these guys that would ride around the neighborhood on bikes and sell balloons filled with hydrogen that they made themselves in tanks attached to the bike.  Every so often they would stop and have to pour water on the tank and the burlap covering it.

    The balloons were like 10 cents so we’d by several and then light them off with matches.  They looked just like that video (except way smaller)…a big orange fireball.

  10. Lecture demo people know not to inflate/store hydrogen balloons.  You must make them on site as needed, since the slightest electrostatic discharge will make them explode.

    It’s possible to do H2 balloons safely by eliminating the static electric danger: by spraying them with detergent-water.

    Rubbing balloons on your hair, or even letting them brush against your clothing  …that’s only safe if your balloons are always inflated with helium.

  11. Good lord, that’s awful!  Doesn’t Armenia have access to clowns with helium tanks?!

  12. If this were a film, everyone would be pointing out the ‘goof’/revealing mistake of seeing a vehicle marked ‘Ambulance’. Though Armenia probably uses english words on their civic vehicles.

  13. To conserve helium, I imagine you could mix it with some hydrogen, couldn’t you?  What would be the highest hydrogen/helium ration you’d want to use where there would still be no danger of combustion?

    1. A careful mix of helium and nitrogen will give your balloon enough bouyancy without the risk.

      That said, I WOULD prefer to use hydrogen since balloons are an incredibly frivolous use of helium. But, if you go that route, you do need to keep the balloons high enough not to burn people. Even so, this incident doesn’t look all that bad. 

  14. LMAO, I thought Armenians were supposed to be an intelligent people.  You’d think all of the chess playing and the political lobbying in the U.S. would’ve prepared their minds to comprehend the risk of draping pure hydrogen balloons immediately above the heads of people at a political rally.

    1. I collect sweeping generalizations, and these are some of the biggest and most grand I have seen of recent.  May I add them to my collection?  I promise to take good care of them.

  15.      Hindenburg was filled with hydrogen because the only Helium available in the world was located in America. The defense industry put an embargo on it since it was necessary to fill America’s rigid airships of the time(Not blimps. The Hindenburg isn’t a blimp either. It’s a zeppelin). At that point in time helium was so scarce that most of it could actually be found stored in the rigid airships themselves. The second airship ever to be filled with helium actually had to use helium siphoned off another helium filled airship. And yes, the aircraft dope which was used on the Hindenburg was in fact very flammable.

         Second, doesn’t hydrogen burn at a fairly low temperature? It is my understanding that it cannot burn you, at least that’s what I’ve been told. I’m no scientist here. It would be the latex that burns you.

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