'Balloon Boy' Reminds Parents of Fear They Have Felt

By Brigid Schulte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 17, 2009

It is one of the worst moments for a parent. Your child is standing beside you. Then he's not.

It has been almost 14 years since Laurie Dewhirst Young sat on the beach with her infant son in her arms and turned to find her 3-year-old daughter had vanished. But she can instantly conjure the sick panic she felt. "Your heart clenches tight," she said. "Your stomach clenches tight. You get this creepy sweat on you, and you have this awful feeling as you look left, look right, that you don't know what to do."

That, she said, might be why the nation watched, transfixed, as a silver balloon floated for 50 miles over the Colorado prairie, and hundreds of people searched Thursday for a missing little boy who, like many such kids in such situations, turned out not to have been missing at all. The stories of other parents don't usually include a flying saucer-shaped balloon, military helicopters and TV cameras, but almost every parent has a missing-child memory that sticks forever.

The time in the store when the 4-year-old disappeared, only to be found hiding inside the circular clothes rack. The time the 2-year-old vanished from the van when the mother ran back into the house for less than a minute to grab something. The time your precious one took the wrong bus, walked down a busy street and didn't tell you, lagged in the crowd at the ballgame or the fair and you thought you'd never see them again.

"I didn't have the feeling someone took her," said Young, who lives in Alexandria with her daughter, who is now 17. "I thought she was dead. My first feeling was, she was under that water somewhere, and how could we find her? I kept thinking, how could that have happened so fast? They're quick. They're so quick."

Young's daughter had run a half-mile down the beach by the time her husband caught up with the child, people on the beach pointing the way as he charged down the sand.

Paul Moniz was doing chores in his front yard in Alexandria a few years ago when he made a brief detour into the back yard. When he returned seconds later, his 3-year-old son was gone. "I immediately got that oogie feeling and started yelling for him," he said. "I played back in my mind the white Jeep that drove by the cross street, wondering if they had time to stop and pick up a child."

His son turned up inside the house. Moniz hadn't realized the boy was tall enough to reach the doorknob.

Sometimes the search takes minutes before the missing child is found. Sometimes hours. Sometimes police are called. Often the child is found asleep.

That's what children do when they're lost or overwhelmed, said Amy Pacos, a child psychologist in the District. "They just shut down. They're confused. Their inclination is to sit down, curl up and go to sleep."

That's what "balloon boy" Falcon Heene said he was doing -- sleeping in a cardboard box in a garage attic to hide from an angry father.

Kate Braestrup, who grew up in the Washington area, is a chaplain for the Maine Warden Service and is often called to sit with parents during missing child searches. In a striking number of cases, the children are found curled up somewhere. "They get tired and fed up and weepy and they stop," she said. "They are often awakened by the searchers."

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