FT. COLLINS, COLO., AND DENVER — As the silvery UFO-shaped balloon sailed over the high plains and a national television audience watched transfixed Thursday, the Colorado Army National Guard scrambled combat helicopters for a possible rescue of the 6-year-old boy reportedly inside.
Flights in and out of Denver International Airport were rerouted. On the ground, would-be rescuers with eyes skyward chased the craft along winding back roads. CNN upped its tape delay to 10 seconds, lest it broadcast a tragedy live. Some people offered prayers for the boy's safe return.
But when the balloon finally landed, Falcon Heene wasn't inside. And he hadn't fallen from the sky. He had been home, asleep.
The saga of Falcon began when a homemade helium-filled balloon accidentally went airborne and one of his older brothers reported that he thought the boy had crawled into the craft.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, October 22, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 48 words Type of Material: Correction
Balloon graphic: A graphic with an article in Friday's Section A about a boy believed to be in the basket of a mylar balloon that became untethered from a home in Colorado said the balloon traveled at an air speed of 30 mph. That was its ground speed.
As the story unfolded, it seemed tailored for the current age, complete with a nod to reality TV, lots of chatter in the blogosphere and even a hint of scandal as questions were raised about whether the whole thing had been a hoax. The nation has experienced shared media moments before, such as the nervous waiting for the successful rescue of "Baby Jessica," an 18-month-old baby named Jessica McClure who fell into a well in Midland, Texas, in 1987.
But unlike the leading characters in previous media moments, Falcon Heene and his family were, to some people, familiar figures.
The Heene family has a television studio in their basement, and YouTube is full of videos of Richard and Mayumi Heene's three boys. The parents are storm chasers who have brought their children along to pursue tornadoes and hurricanes. They even opened their most private moments to scrutiny by appearing on the ABC show "Wife Swap," in which two mothers trade places.
Swiftly, the Heene YouTube channel filled with comments from well-wishers. "I heard about the story on the news," wrote videogirl130. "I am praying for you."
As authorities and the family later described it, the day went something like this:
The local elementary schools had been closed Thursday, and Falcon had spent much of his morning crawling into the tiny battery compartment beneath the balloon. His inventor father, Richard, yelled at him and chased him out.
Authorities said Falcon loosened the tether that held the balloon to the ground, and hid when his parents came out to test the device. They had planned to let it rise a few feet but instead it accidentally went aloft at 11:20 a.m. Mountain time.
When that happened, Falcon crept into a crawl space above the family garage and hid in a cardboard box, because he said he didn't want to get in trouble. "I played and then I went to bed," he told reporters after he was found.
Falcon's older brother said he'd seen the boy enter a plywood compartment below the balloon just before it slipped its tether and went skyward. The report triggered the scramble to save the boy. As the balloon's flight was broadcast live, people weighed in on the family's YouTube channel.
"I watched the whole ordeal on tv and prayed to God that Falcon would be alive and land safely from the air craft," wrote aerialbabyy, a mother who said her family had watched the Heenes on "Wife Swap." "I am so sorry that Falcon is still missing and I am still praying for him."
The channel received thousands of views as the drama unfolded.
More than two hours after the balloon took off, it drifted down into a farm field to the southeast and landed gently.
Officials began to backtrack along the device's 50-mile route, searching for signs of Falcon. The first place they looked was the Heene home, knowing that missing children are frequently hiding in their own residences. But there was no trace of Falcon at the house.
About 4 p.m., a grim-faced James Alderden, the Larimer County sheriff, stepped before television cameras near the Heene residence to report that the situation had now become a "recovery effort" -- a term law enforcement often uses when it believes there is a corpse rather than a living person to rescue.
Suddenly one of the deputies in the background yelled, "They found him!"
Alderden stepped away for a moment, glanced down at his pager and broke into a grin. He flashed two thumbs up. "He's at the house!" the sheriff cried.
There was no dramatic discovery: The boy had woken up and walked into the family's home.
Falcon hid, he later said, because he didn't want to get in trouble with his father. "I was scared because he'd yelled at me," the boy said.
Falcon, according to friends and neighbors, is no shrinking violet -- but neither is his father. In a review of the first Heene episode of "Wife Swap," The Times wrote that the Heene family, "with its three rowdy boys, is anchored by father Richard, whose anger arrives in sudden bolts between his fringe science projects."