A 6-year-old boy, who was feared adrift in a wayward homemade helium balloon, was found safe in his home after a massive search Thursday afternoon.
The discovery ended a nerve-wracking four-hour chase and hunt that began because authorities and family members believed that Falcon Heene accidentally lifted off in the family's silver saucer-shaped weather balloon when it became untethered from their Fort Collins back yard.
Hundreds of thousands of people worldwide watched on live TV and on the Internet as helicopter cameras tracked the balloon as it floated thousands of feet above rural Colorado before it softly crashed in a plowed field.
Swarming deputies soon reported that the boy was not on board.
"Be advised it's empty ... It's empty," an official announced on the Larimer County dispatcher radio.
That prompted a massive ground search, with law enforcement agencies retracing the balloon's path in an effort to try and locate the missing boy.
Then, just after 4 p.m., a stunning announcement from the Larimer County sheriff.
"He's at the house and he's fine," Larimer County Sheriff Jim Alderden told a throng of TV cameras and reporters. "He's been hiding in a cardboard box in the attic above the garage."
The sheriff said it's not unusual to have missing children hide.
"They see all the commotion, they hear people looking for them, they get afraid that they're going to be in trouble, so they hide," he said. "I can't tell you how many times this has happened over the course of my career."
Falcon Comes Out Of Hiding; Heene Family Relieved
Falcon's emotionally drained and relieved parents recounted their roller-coaster day before a bank of TV cameras, about an hour after the boy came out of hiding.
Richard Heene said the family thought Falcon has scrambled inside the weather balloon's equipment compartment, because he told his 10-year-old brother "he was going to sneak inside."
Falcon Heene explains why he was hiding from his family.
The family said they videotape all of their experiments, and they had video that showed Falcon climbing in the balloon before it took off.
While clutching a glow stick, the impish Falcon explained that he climbed up the rafters in the garage and hid there after his father chastised him for climbing into the balloon earlier in the day.
"He scared me, because he yelled at me," the boy said in a high, thin voice. "So I went in the attic. I heard shouting. I didn't want to come out very soon, or else he would yell at me. I thought I would get in trouble."
The father explained that he barked at the boy to not climb in the lighter-than-air balloon because its outer skin is charged with a million volts of electricity to help steer it.
"It's potentially dangerous if you get inside and the electricity comes on," said Richard Heene, who said he feared his missing son might had been electrocuted in the runaway balloon.
"I'm really sorry I yelled at him," Heene said as choked up and cradled his son in his arms. "He scared the heck out of us."
When a reporter asked if the boy was "grounded" for his high-flying hoax, the parents said no.
"We don't ground our children. But we're going to talk to him," the dad said.
Heene said the balloon wasn't tethered properly, and "it was a mishap. I'm not going to lay blame on anybody."
When authorities didn't find the boy after the balloon crashed in a field, the father said: "That kind of tore me apart. The only thing I could think of was he had fallen out."
Then, after hours of waiting inside the home for news, mom and dad learned their youngest son was alive.
"My legs got weak. I couldn't even walk from one room to the next," Richard Heene said. "How did it feel to see my son again? It was a relief and we're going to watch him a lot closer."
The parents repeatedly thanked the local police and sheriff's departments -- and even news helicopters -- for searching for Falcon.
"You guys are great," Richard Heene said.
"Thank you. Thank you so much," the mother, Mayumi Heene, added.
Family, No Stranger To Publicity, Answers Tough Questions
The parents, who appeared with the boys in two episodes of the ABC TV reality show, "Wife Swap," denied speculation that the chaotic misadventure -- dubbed "Balloon Boy" in Internet reports -- was a publicity stunt.
"That's horrible. After the crap that we just went through? No, no, no," the weary father insisted. "We keep all our experiments to ourselves."
In an interview with CNN Thursday night, when Richard Heene asked Falcon why he didn't come out of hiding when he heard his parents calling for him, Falcon replied, "You had said that we did this for a show."
Not the least bit shy, he was eager to show how he climbed a pole into the rafters of the garage and hid out in a cardboard box for hours, playing with toys he had stashed in that area. He wasn't at all concerned about all the attention he inadvertently created or the throngs of cameras taping his every move.
"I think it's real weird. There's like hundreds of them," Falcon said, referring to the number of cameras.
Richard Heene said Falcon has always been adventurous, so they had feared the worst.
The father has been described by friends as a sort of "mad scientist." He is a storm chaser and has a Web site, called The Psyience Detectives,
which "investigates the mysteries of science and psychic phenomenon."
While promoting "Wife Swap," ABC promoted the Heene family as storm chasers who also "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."
7NEWS meteorologist Richard Ortner described Heene as "very intelligent and wildly creative." The Heenes are known to take their children along as they pursue bad weather across the country. Ortner accompanied the Heene family as they were storm chasing last year.
Richard Heene said he crafted the homemade weather balloon for experiments in his back yard. He had apparently been working on the balloon for some time.
"This sort of thing is normal for them," neighbor Bob Licko said.
He said the "whole family was out there" working on the balloon Thursday morning. He said the balloon was supposed to be tethered and hover 20 feet in the air with no one on board.
Licko said he was leaving home when he heard a commotion in the back yard 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.
Licko said he didn't believe the Heenes planned a hoax.
"Based on what I witnessed in the back yard 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."
Sheriff's Department Doesn't Believe Story Was Hoax
The sheriff's department said they don't believe the incident was a hoax, either, and don't plan on charging the Heenes for the huge use of resources in the massive search.
"We don't want somebody in a situation, in an emergency, thinking about payment before safety. So, we'll get our resources out and we'd rather be there and not be needed than be in a situation where somebody waited or we waited because of finances and someone's life was unnecessarily put in jeopardy," said Maj. Justin Smith with the Larimer County Sheriff's Office.
Volunteers who helped searched for the boy said they don't feel it was a waste of time or resources and that it was the best ending anyone could hope for.
Smith said there have been no previous calls to the home and no previous indication of problems at the home.
"There's nothing throughout and certainly nothing in the end that would indicate there would be any grounds for criminal charges," Smith said.
Authorities said the boy's home and neighborhood were immediately searched after the report of the runaway balloon and there was no sign of the boy, leading everyone to believe Falcon had climbed into the craft.
"Clearly one of my concerns when I heard that the boy was found after we searched the house twice was how did we miss him?" Alderden said. "I'm told we did a very thorough search of the house. They searched the attic. They searched the garage. But, apparently, somehow, the boy climbed up on top of this cabinet ..."
Alderden said he didn't have an estimate of how much the search for the boy cost.
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.
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.
The Great Balloon Adventure
The balloon was aloft for about two hours, traveling roughly 55 miles southeast over Colorado, pushed by light to moderate winds.
Authorities earlier described the large silvery craft as a sort of "flying saucer" weather balloon and said it reached an altitude of 15,000 feet before it began descending.
At one point, it was roughly 3,500 feet above the ground and moving an average of 30 mph. The balloon tipped precariously at times, with one side partially deflated.
The foil balloon lifted into the air from the family's Fort Collins home at about 11:30 a.m. and landed about 2 miles northeast of Prospect Reservoir at 1:35 p.m., in Weld County. It was a journey that took the balloon through two counties and over homes and prairies dotted with ponds and towering trees.
The family called police and reported Falcon could not be found after the balloon soared into the sky. His older brother told his parents and authorities that he saw Falcon climb into a box attached to the bottom of the balloon and the balloon lifted off, Larimer County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Kathy Messick said.
The balloon did have a box that carried batteries, Messick said. The box was attached to the aircraft and there was damage to the area where the boy was believed to have been.
"It was never intended for any more weight than the batteries that were in the compartment," Messick said.
A black mass can been seen below and slightly to the left of the photo. Authorities are trying to determine if it's something that fell from the balloon.
Authorities had thought for some time that the box had become detached before the balloon landed. Rescuers also worked on theory that the boy might have fallen from the balloon and were closely examining an amateur photo that showed a black mass below the balloon to determine if it was something that fell from the balloon. The photo was taken by Lisa Eklund as the balloon floated away from the boy's neighborhood.
"We were sitting, eating, looking out 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," Eklund said.
After the balloon took off, there were sporadic reports on its location as it drifted with the wind over the flat Colorado countryside. 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.
Airtracker 7 located the balloon at 12:35 p.m., at about 8,000 feet in Weld County. It appeared to be slightly tilted at that time.
"The structure at the bottom of the balloon ... is made of extremely thin plywood and won't withstand any kind of a crash at all," said Erik Nilsson, Larimer County Emergency Manager, as the balloon floated thousands of feet over farmland.
Deputies from Larimer and Weld counties tracked the balloon from the ground as it drifted in the skies. Authorities scrambled to work on a rescue mission, with one plan being the possibility of pilots of ultralight aircraft putting weights on the homemade craft to bring it down.
Experts had said it could remain airborne for up to 12 hours, although it was clearly deflated on one side by 1:25 p.m., and was descending to about 400 feet off the ground at 1:30 p.m.
When it landed, at 1:35 p.m., rescuers ran up and immediately surrounded it, grabbing on to the ropes that had tethered the balloon to the house and punching holes to deflate it. They then radioed the news, "Be advised, it's empty. It's empty."
The Heene family, as seen in a promotional picture for ABC's "Wifeswap." Falcon is the boy in the black jacket.
An investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board examined the craft about two hours after it landed. The investigator could be seen taking photos of the bottom of the craft and peering inside. Because the boy was never in the balloon, the NTSB said its investigation has now ended.
Balloon Diverts Flights At DIA
While the balloon was airborne, Larimer County fire dispatchers asked if Airtracker 7 could use an outside speaker to ask the boy if he had a valve to release helium.
"Is there a way to release some of the helium that this kid may know?" the dispatcher asked. "Maybe we can get him to lower it."
There was no visible response from the balloon.
There was worry at one point that the balloon might drift into air traffic control corridors used by Denver International Airport, based on its current location and direction. Deputies alerted DIA air traffic controllers to warn them about letting aircraft fly through the area.
Flights heading to the north from DIA were diverted while the balloon was in the air. A DIA spokesman said flights were diverted for 15 to 20 minutes but airport operations were not affected.
The Colorado National Guard launched a Blackhawk helicopter and a smaller OH-58 Kiowa helicopter to try and intercept the balloon.
After it was confirmed no one was aboard the balloon, both Colorado Army National Guard helicopters returned to Buckley Air Force Base to refuel and prepare for search and rescue operations.
Airlife Denver -- a medical helicopter -- also joined in the search for the boy from the air.
Falcon Heene was out of school on Thursday because of teacher conferences at his school.
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