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Balloon Chase Ends With Boy Hiding At Home

Six-year-old Falcon Heene sits on the roof of his family's van outside his home in Fort Collins, Colo. Falcon had been reported to be aboard a helium balloon over Colorado, before being discovered hiding in a box at his home.
David Zalubowski
Six-year-old Falcon Heene sits on the roof of his family's van outside his home in Fort Collins, Colo. Falcon had been reported to be aboard a helium balloon over Colorado, before being discovered hiding in a box at his home.

A 6-year-old boy was found hiding in a cardboard box in his family's garage attic Thursday after being feared aboard a homemade helium balloon that hurtled 50 miles through the sky on live television.

Sheriff Jim Alderden turned to reporters during a news conference and gave a thumbs up and said, "He's at the house."

"Apparently he's been there the whole time," Alderden said.


Later, Richard Heene held his son Falcon in his arms as he spoke to reporters.

Heene said the family was working to launch the balloon Thursday morning, and he yelled at Falcon for playing in it.

The boy says he hid in the rafters of the family's garage because he was scared when his dad yelled.

The father says Falcon's brother saw his sibling inside the compartment, and the family thought he was aboard when the balloon launched. It was not immediately clear if the launch was accidental.

The family has appeared on the ABC reality show Wife Swap, but Richard Heene bristled when asked whether the incident was a publicity stunt, calling the question "horrible after the crap we just went through."


Investigators had searched the house twice, and interviewed one of Falcon's older brothers several times, Richard Heene said. He said the brother who reported that the boy floated off in the balloon was "very adamant," and the parents "were besides themselves with worry."

The boy's brother had said he saw that Falcon had crawled into a box or basket attached to the large balloon tethered behind the family home in Fort Collins before the balloon took off. The flight lasted more than two hours, spanned 50 miles, set off a frantic search and kept television and Internet audiences captivated.

Search teams scoured the area from the house in the direction that the balloon flew. The craft was airborne for more than two hours before it came to rest in Hudson, Colo., 40 miles away — and authorities found no one inside.

The family members have been local celebrities since appearing last year on the reality TV show.

"When the Heene family aren't chasing storms, they devote their time to scientific experiments that include looking for extraterrestrials and building a research-gathering flying saucer to send into the eye of the storm," the Web site for Wife Swap states.

In a 2007 interview with The Denver Post, Richard Heene said he became a storm chaser after a tornado ripped off a roof where he was working as a contractor. He said he flew a plane around Hurricane Wilma's perimeter in 2005.

Pursuing bad weather was a family activity as the father sought evidence to prove his theory that rotating storms create their own magnetic fields.

The Coloradoan quoted Larimer County sheriff's spokeswoman Kathy Messick as saying that the craft had a box with a small battery compartment. Sheriff's officials and family members believed the child was in the compartment.

Television news footage of the fast-moving craft showed the balloon pitching in the winds.

The Colorado Army National Guard sent an OH-58 Kiowa helicopter and had been preparing to send a Black Hawk UH-60 to try to rescue the boy, possibly by lowering someone to the balloon. The Guard also had been working with pilots of ultralight aircraft on the possibility of putting weights on the homemade craft to weigh it down.

But the balloon landed on its own in a dirt field. Sheriff's deputies secured it to keep it in place, even tossing dirt on one edge.

Alderden said he didn't have an estimate of how much the search cost. Capt. Troy Brown said the Black Hawk helicopter was in the air for nearly three hours, and the Kiowa helicopter was airborne for about one hour. The Black Hawk costs about $4,600 an hour to fly, and the Kiowa is $700 an hour, Brown said.

Northbound departures at Denver International Airport were shut down as a precaution to prevent against a possible collision between the balloon and an airliner, said Lyle Burrington, an air traffic controller at the Federal Aviation Administration's radar center in Longmont, Colo.

Air traffic controllers warned planes in the area about the balloon, Burrington said. It helped that the day was clear, enabling pilots to see the balloon well, he said.

FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said the agency tracked the balloon through reports from pilots.

"We were sitting eating, out looking where they normally shoot off hot air balloons. My husband said he saw something. It went over our rooftop. Then we saw the big round balloonish thing, it was spinning," said neighbor Lisa Eklund.

"By the time I saw it, it traveled pretty fast," she said.

The story gripped the television news networks, which set aside other programming to follow the balloon and speculate on the boy's safety.

"It's got everybody freaked out," said Fox News Channel's Shepard Smith, "and why wouldn't it?"

From NPR staff and wire reports

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