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Feared lost in balloon, boy found at home

A 6-year-old boy is found at home, several hours after the runaway flight of the family's experimental balloon riveted the nation and led to a frantic search for the child.
Image: Heene family
Richard and Mayumi Heene with their sons, Bradford, Ryo and Falcon (middle). MSNBC TV
/ Source: NBC, and news services

A 6-year-old boy was found hiding at home Thursday, hours after the runaway flight of his family's experimental balloon riveted the nation and led to a frantic search by authorities who feared the child was aboard the craft.

More than two hours after the balloon gently touched down in a field with no sign of the boy, Sheriff Jim Alderden turned to reporters during a news conference, gave a thumbs up and said 6-year-old Falcon Heene was "at the house."

"Apparently the boy’s been there the whole time. He’s been hiding in a cardboard box in the attic above the garage," Alderden said.

"I don't want to conjecture but this is not first time we are searching for a kid and once he realizes everyone is looking for him he hides because he's afraid of getting in trouble."

One of boy's older brothers had initially told authorities he saw his brother climb into a box compartment attached to the bottom of the balloon before it became untethered and took off.

"He was very adamant. That was his consistent story," the sheriff said.

The family, which appeared twice on a reality television show about households that swap wives, spoke to reporters outside their home after being reunited with Falcon.

Scolded, then missing
The boy's father, Richard Heene, said the family was tinkering with the balloon Thursday morning and that he scolded Falcon for getting inside a compartment on the craft. He said Falcon's brother had seen him inside the compartment before it took off and that's why they thought he was in there when it launched.

But the boy fled to the attic at some point after the scolding and was never in the balloon during its 50-mile journey through two counties. "I yelled at him. I'm really sorry I yelled at him," Heene said as he hugged his son during a news conference.

"I was in the attic and he scared me because he yelled at me," Falcon said. "That's why I went in the attic."

During his time in hiding, Falcon said he played with his toys and took a nap. He said he finally got up because he was bored.

Richard Heene adamantly denied the notion that the whole thing was a big publicity stunt. "That's horrible after the crap we just went through. No."

During a live interview with CNN, Falcon said he had heard his family calling his name.

"You did?" Mayumi Heene said.

"Why didn't you come out?" Richard Heene said.

Falcon answered, "You had said that we did this for a show."

Later, Richard Heene bristled when the family was asked to clarify and said he didn't know what his son meant. He didn't ask his son what he meant by "a show."  

The sheriff said he would meet with investigators on Friday to see if the case warranted further investigation.

"As this point there's no indication that this was a hoax," Alderden said.

The discovery of the boy marked a bizarre end to a saga that started when the giant silvery balloon floated away from the family's yard Thursday, sparking a frantic rescue operation that involved military helicopters and briefly shut down Denver International Airport.

The balloon's two-hour flight played out live on television, captivating viewers across the country. The balloon rotated slowly in the wind, tipping precariously at times, during its journey before coming down in a dirt field in neighboring Weld County, roughly 50 miles away from where it took off.

Deputies rushed to the scene and corralled and deflated the balloon but found no sign of the boy. There were fears the box compartment had separated from the main apparatus during its flight. Several people reported seeing something fall from the craft while it was in the air.

With Falcon nowhere in sight, investigators frantically searched the ground along the balloon's path.

Flying saucer?
The boy's family had been building a helium-balloon craft that was kept tethered in the backyard of their home. The craft, which resembled a silver flying saucer, was approximately 20 feet across by 5 feet high.

On Thursday morning, Falcon was playing outside with one of his two older brothers when the older boy said he saw the younger one go into a box at the bottom of the balloon, said Cathy Davis of the sheriff's department.

Kevin Kuretich, of the Colorado Division of Emergency Management, said the craft had some kind of electric power unit which was run by double-C batteries. He said the balloon did seem to be big enough to carry a 6-year-old.

The craft somehow became loose and the balloon took off. It was airborne for more than two hours and glided through two counties.

"This balloon was never meant to actually carry anybody. It was just a family project they were working on," a Fort Collins police spokesperson told reporters.

Richard Heene said the balloon apparently "wasn't tethered properly" but it was unclear if the release was accidental.

'Big round balloonish thing'Several people in the neighborhood saw the aircraft floating over their homes, and some snapped pictures.

Bob Licko, 65, said he was leaving home when he heard commotion in the backyard. He said he saw two boys on the roof with a camera, commenting about their brother.

"One of the boys yelled to me that his brother was way up in the air," Licko said.

He said the boy's mother seemed distraught and that the boy's father was running around the house.

Licko said he didn't believe any hoax was involved.

"Based on what I witnessed in the backyard in the morning with the parents, I don't think that's the case," Licko said. "They're better actors than I thought they were if that's the case."

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

Rescue plan
Television news helicopters also tracked the craft as it drifted several thousand feet above ground, hitting estimated speeds of about 30 mph. The precarious flight was beamed live to viewers across the nation.

Officials scrambled to figure out how to safely bring down the craft, believing it was carrying the boy.

While the balloon was airborne, Colorado Army National Guard sent a UH-58 Kiowa helicopter and a Black Hawk UH-60 to try to rescue the boy, possibly by lowering someone to the balloon. They also were working with pilots of ultralight aircraft on the possibility of putting weights on the homemade craft to weigh it down.

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.

Col. Chris Petty, one of the pilots aboard the Black Hawk, said he was thrilled the boy was OK.

Asked what he would say to the 6-year-old if he saw him, Petty said: "I'm really glad you're alive, I'm very thankful, but I'd sure like to know the rest of the story."

The episode led to a brief shutdown of northbound departures from Denver International Airport, one of the nation's busiest, said a controller at the Federal Aviation Administration's radar center in Longmont, Colo. The balloon was about 15 miles northwest of the airport at that time.

The craft floated for about two hours before coming down on its own in a field in Weld County, northeast of Denver International Airport, more than 40 miles away.

Storm chaserThe boy's father, Richard Heene, is an amateur scientist, according to a 2007 Denver Post article on weather chasers. He joined another man, Scott Stevens, to form a Fort Collins-based weather-research team they called The Psyience Detectives.

In the newspaper article, Heene described becoming a storm chaser after a tornado ripped off a roof where he was working as a contractor and said he once flew a plane around Hurricane Wilma's perimeter in 2005.

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

Although Richard said he has no specialized training, they had a computer tracking system in their car and a special motorcycle.

The Heene family also appeared twice in the ABC reality show “Wife Swap," most recently in February. On the show, they were portrayed as alien buffs who are obsessed with science.

"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," according to ABC's description of the episode.