A Mystery Aloft, a Nation Riveted, and One Grounded Balloon Boy
Friday, October 16, 2009
One minute, President Obama was on the television, speaking about the rebirth of New Orleans, the usual array of citizenry behind him. In the next, he had been shoved aside by a live, breaking Grimm's fairy tale. And like all children's fables, it was at once horrifying and enchanting.
A rambunctious 6-year-old boy had climbed into a homemade helium balloon, the anchors announced gravely. Now he was floating so prettily 7,000 feet above Colorado, toward the heavens, at the mercy of the winds.
For three hours on a workaday Thursday, a mesmerized and helpless America watched this shiny silvery disc spin slowly against a brilliant blue sky with puffy white clouds. As it tipped this way and that, emergency vehicles trailed the balloon over two counties and 50 miles. The Air Force was alerted. The Federal Aviation Administration grounded planes. A Black Hawk chopper flew in close, blades slashing, to create a downwash to defeat a contraption that looked like a giant birthday party balloon.
There became one conversation, one America: What's the latest on the balloon boy? How are they going to get him down? Here came the parade of experts, in air balloon construction, mechanics and lore. How'd he get up there anyway?
NBC's Nancy Snyderman talked about the cognitive facility of 6-year-olds. Psychologists speculated about how afraid he might be. How cold is it up there? Meteorologists consulted their models. He might not even be in there -- it might be a stunt, he might have fallen out.
At last, the jet stream set the shimmering orb gently down in the middle of a vast field.
Men in overalls ran to the balloon and stabbed it with shovels until it slowly crumpled.
A nation held its breath.
There was no boy.
Authorities scoured the ground for bits of broken plywood, a crumpled child.
And then, five hours after the horror began, someone interrupted the sheriff giving a breaking-news briefing: The boy had been found!
His name was Falcon, the perfect fairy-tale name. He had been hiding in a cardboard box in the rafters of the garage. "I played," the boy told reporters, "and then I went to sleep."