FORT COLLINS, COLO. It looked like something straight out of science fiction and sounded like a parent’s worst nightmare: a flying saucer-shaped helium balloon zooming across the skies of Colorado with a boy named Falcon inside.
Or so it seemed.
After a spectacle that dominated cable television and captivated people across the nation, 6-year-old Falcon Heene was found safe at his home Thursday hiding in a cardboard box in the garage rafters.
Sheriff Jim Alderden turned to reporters during a news conference, held his thumbs up and said, “He’s at the house.”
The boy’s brother said he saw Falcon climb into the balloon before it took off. Turns out their father had scolded him for playing with the balloon, and little Falcon went to the garage to hide.
“He scared me because he yelled at me,” Falcon told reporters after the episode was over. “That’s why I went in the attic.”
The discovery marked a bizarre end to a saga that started when the giant silvery balloon floated away from the family’s yard Thursday morning, sparking a frantic rescue operation that involved military helicopters and briefly shut down Denver International Airport.
The balloon tipped precariously at times before gliding to the ground in a field, the culmination of a two-hour, 50-mile journey through two counties and over homes and prairies dotted with ponds and towering trees.
With the child nowhere in sight, investigators searched the balloon’s path. Several people reported seeing something fall from the craft while it was in the air, and yellow crime-scene tape was placed around his house.
But in the end, the boy apparently never left the home. He fled to the rafters after his father, Richard Heene, scolded him for getting inside a compartment on the craft. Heene 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. Authorities don’t believe it was a hoax.
Investigators had searched the house twice, and interviewed one of Falcon’s older brothers several times, Alderden said.
Up, up and away
The balloon was owned by the boy’s parents and tethered behind their home in Fort Collins, about an hour north of Denver. The Heenes are amateur storm chasers who are known to take their children along as they pursue bad weather, and the family has appeared twice on the ABC reality show “Wife Swap,” most recently in February.
“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 the show.
Richard Heene said the family had been working on a low-altitude vehicle that people could take out of their garages and use to hover over traffic. But it wasn’t supposed to go higher than 20 feet or so, he said.
He said the balloon wasn’t tethered properly, and he wasn’t “going to lay blame on anybody.”
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?” his mother, 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.”
“I’m kind of appalled after all the feelings that I went through up and down that you guys are trying to suggest something else,” Richard Heene said.
‘Everybody freaked out’
Neighbor Bob Licko said he was leaving home when he heard a commotion in the backyard and saw two boys on the roof with a camera, talking about their brother.
“One of the boys yelled to me that his brother was way up in the air,” Licko said. The boy’s mother seemed distraught and his father was running around the house, Licko said.
“It went over our rooftop,” said another neighbor, Lisa Eklund. “Then we saw the big round balloonish thing. It was spinning.
“By the time I saw it,” she said, “it traveled pretty fast.”
So fast, authorities weren’t sure what to do or how, exactly, to launch a rescue mission.
The Federal Aviation Administration was called, and began tracking the balloon through reports from pilots and air traffic control operations that had been alerted to the situation.
The Colorado Army National Guard scrambled an OH-58 Kiowa helicopter and a Black Hawk UH-60 to try to rescue the boy, possibly by lowering someone to the balloon. The helicopter flights alone cost about $14,500.
They also were working with pilots of ultralight aircraft on the possibility of putting weights on the homemade craft to bring it down.
TV news helicopters took flight and beamed pictures of the silver saucer soaring across Colorado. Local television stations broke in to cover the spectacle live and cable news tracked the balloon’s path nonstop.
“It’s got everybody freaked out,” said Fox News Channel’s Shepard Smith, “and why wouldn’t it?”
But then the aircraft began to deflate, one side limping as it spun precariously closer to the ground. As rescue workers chased it by car, the balloon landed with a soft bump in a dirt field about 12 miles from the Denver airport.
Rescue workers armed with shovels sprinted toward it, simultaneously punching holes to deflate the balloon while weighing it down with dirt so it couldn’t again escape.
“Hey, little man. If you’re in there, we’re here. Just don’t move,” shouted one rescuer, captured on camera by Denver’s KUSA-TV.
‘I yelled at him’
Hours later, after little Falcon was discovered, the boy and his father gathered before a crush of cameras to explain how morning playtime had gone so terribly wrong. No, it wasn’t a publicity stunt, Richard Heene insisted. Nor a case of a boy crying wolf.
“I yelled at him,” the father said. “I’m really sorry I yelled at him.”
Then Heene hugged his scared little boy, star for a day of his own mini-reality show.