x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Americans feel taken for a ride by boy-in-balloon saga

Family suspected of creating false scare about their six-year-old son being swept across the Colorado plains in a balloon after he emerged from the family garage.

DENVER // For hours, Americans were glued to their television sets, as news programmes breathlessly followed a flying saucer-shaped balloon, believed to be carrying a small boy, as it careened across the Colorado plains. But by the end of Thursday, after the balloon landed and its hatch was found to be empty, and then six-year-old Falcon Heene emerged sheepishly from the rafters of his family's garage, nationwide concern evolved quickly into stunned outrage.

"Is it just us or does anyone else smell a big fat publicity stunt here?" shrieked the website I Hate the Media. Apparently, many did. "Instead of calling 911, dad calls 9 News?" wrote reader Tom Clancy on the New York Times website. "These brats need to be in foster care and the parents in jail!" wrote another angry viewer on YouTube, after it emerged the Keene family had previously appeared on an ABC reality show and also maintained their own channel on YouTube.

Speculation that the peculiar episode was a hoax intensified after the family appeared on CNN and the anchor asked Falcon why he had not come down from the rafters when his parents, in an earlier search for the boy, called to him. Falcon turned to his dad and said: "You guys said we did this for the show." Although Mr Keene denied he and his family had staged the saga, questions were immediately raised over whether the Keene family or Colorado taxpayers should foot the bill for the elaborate rescue effort, which is estimated to have cost more than US$1 million (Dh3.67m).

Hundreds of officials leapt into action when news broke that Falcon had climbed into the hatch of the balloon, which his father, an amateur inventor and storm chaser, had created and then left untethered in the back garden. Police, firemen and medics in blaring rescue vehicles had sped along beneath the balloon as it raced some 100km across the plains on a brisk and gusty afternoon, eventually touching down near Denver International Airport, a major hub which was forced to temporarily halt planes from taking off or landing.

Fearing the balloon could get sucked into the path of a passenger jet, even the National Transportation Safety Board, which normally swings into action only for major aeroplane accidents, got involved in the rescue effort. Blackhawk helicopters equipped with infrared sensors were dispatched from a nearby military base to fly alongside the speeding craft. Eventually, the silver balloon touched down softly, thus starting a second phase of the chronicle when authorities opened the tiny hatch and found it empty. That prompted fears the boy might have opened the door and fallen out, and a major manhunt was launched along the path the craft had taken.

The story quickly got picked up worldwide, with British tabloids posting minute-by-minute updates on their websites and the Arab-language Al Jazeera covering the story live. Before long, Falcon, who was quickly dubbed the "balloon boy", even had a following on social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook. Then, just as the second phase of the manhunt was getting under way, the boy wandered out to the living room, where his parents were sitting with police. His mother said she let out a shriek and his dad claimed to have gone weak in the knees.

"I couldn't even walk from one room to the next," said Mr Heene. "I was unable to speak." The boy said he had tucked himself into the rafters after his father shouted at him earlier in the day for climbing into the balloon's hatch. The Larimar County sheriff said his team found the family's story plausible. "From our investigators on the scene, by all accounts, the angst and anguish this family was experiencing was genuine and the relief they experienced when he reappeared was genuine," said Jim Alderden, the sheriff.

However, even if their account turns out to be true, the episode is sure to raise questions about the Heenes' unconventional style of raising their children. The family had appeared on the reality show Wife Swap, in which two mothers from seemingly opposite families trade places for several weeks. The Heene family, which was portrayed as unruly and undisciplined, was paired with a Connecticut household that prided itself on child safety.

The Heenes often slept in their clothes, so they could be ready in case they needed to jump into the car to chase an oncoming storm. A former business partner to Mr Heene, who once collaborated to develop storm-sensing technology, said she and another colleague ended their partnership with Mr Heene because he always brought his children on storm-chasing missions "He loves those kids dearly, but part of the reason my co-host Scott and I split from him is because we felt Heene put his kids in the line of fire a bit too much," Barbara Slusser said.

* The National