Just before midnight Sept. 15, a small sedan rolled through darkened Possneck, East Germany, up the narrow roads to the wooded heights above the town and stopped.
Two men got out. One held a flashlight while the other tossed some woolen threads into the chilled, breezy night air. The threads floated westward -- toward the Federal Republic of German -- at about 18 miles an hour. Enough, they hoped, to make it.
So began one of the most extraordinary escapes ever made across the East German border-one of the world's ugliest; lined with high, razor-sharp metal fences, automatically triggered machine guns, patrols, and minefields.
Three hours later, after a 28-minute, 15-mile flight in a home-made, hot air balloon that, they hoped, had carried them and their families across that border and into a farmer's field, the two men ran toward a stunned policeman, shouting, "Are we here, in the West?" They were.
With its long, fortified border with the West, and the wall around Berlin, East Germany has sealed in its 17 million people for the past two decades. Each year, thousands of people try to get out, most in unspectacular ways such as through third countries.
The numbers trying the dangerous routes over the wall or across the border have dwindled as fortifications habe grown more deadly. Yet about 450 persons a year still make it through the danger strips as escapes become more and more ingenious.
Two days ago, a couple and their two-year-old child reached the West after floating 40 miles through the Baltic Sea in a rubber dinghy. In Berlin last week, a snorkeler made it across a canal dividing the city, and two weeks ago the East German driver of the U.S. ambassador to East Germany put his wife and child in the trunk and drove the ambassador's official car to West Berlin.
Last month, a man who had never flown took his family from Dresden and flew a light plane to the West.In July, families came in crop-duster planes and gliders. And now, for the first time, a hot-air balloon.
Although all these escapes, and probably far more attempts that are never heard of, are life-and-death gambles, the balloonists' tale has come to symbolize all the resourcefulness, personal courage and political commitment that it takes to carry out such an adventure.
Those who chart these escapes risk not only their own futures, but those of their families, a factor that heightens the drama.
After the balloonists landed near the tiny West German border town of Naila at 2:40 a.m. September 16, bits of their story were told to local newsmen. Soon, however, West Germany's mass-circulation weekly magazine Stern paid the balloonists a rumored $50,000 for exclusive rights to their story began to unfold in the magazine.
The man who drove the car that night was Peter Strelzyk, 37, a slim bearded man who worked as an electrician and who had been a mechanic with the East German Air Force years earlier.
Next to him was Guenter Wetzel, 24, a bridklayer.
The men had two things in common: both were tinkerers, men who loved to puzzle out mechanical problems; and both wanted out of East Germany, "that hermetically sealed workers and farmers republic," as Strelzyk called it.
"If we were alone," Strelzyk told Stern, "we probably would have been gone a long time ago. But with women and children, everything is much more difficult."
The idea first came to them almost two years ago while watching an East German television program about ballooning. "It hit me like a flash," Strelzyk told newsmen.
From then on, the two men read everything they could on the subject. In the basement of Strelzyk's house they began to hammer, drill and solder together platforms, gas burners and a make-shift flame-thrower.
In Wetzel's basement, the wives -- Petra Wetzel and Doris Strelzyk -- worked for months tightly stitching together an incredible 60-foot-wide, 75-foot-high balloon out of curtains, bed sheets, shower liners and other fabrics of every color brough home piece by piece.
By early September, the amazing contraption was finished and the families waited only for the right night.
When the two men drove back from testing the winds near Poessneck the night of Sept. 15-16, they told their families this was the night. From their account this is how the rest of the adventure developed:
The balloon is stuffed into a small trailer behind the car. The tiny gondola -- no more than a thin, square metal floor about five feet on a side with four iron pipes at the corners and rope sides -- is placed on top of the car and covered with a canvas. Inside the gondola are four tanks of propane gas.
Before they leave, the adults have a last cup of coffee. The youngest passenger, two-year-old Andreas Wetzel, is given a mild sedative by her mother. They leave behind everything they have accumulated: the house, car, TV, washing machine and other accoutrements of the East German middle class.
Later, Strelzyk would tell an Associated Press reporter, "Things were pretty good for us over there by East German standards. But it was no longer possible for us to lie to our children and put up with the political conditions in East Germany."
The ride back to the launching site is tense. Wetzel and Strelzyk's 15-year-old son Frank, go ahead on a moped. The others follow in the car.
By 1:30 a.m. they begin their work. The balloon is laid out flat. The gondola is fastened by nylon ropes sewed into the fabric, and then anchored to the ground by an iron spike connected to more nylon rope.
Strelzyk and his son set up a homemade aid blower fashioned out of miniatrue propeller-shaped blades. Attached to the blower is a motor taken from a motor-bike. When it starts the noise shatters the dark silence. Luckily, Strelzyk told Stern, the motor bike noise near a road probably did not strike anyone as unusual.
Slowly, cold air is blown into the mammoth balloon. Wetzel and Frank Strelzyk hold open the neck of the balloon while the boy's father aims a home-made flame thrower, connected to another propane tank, into the balloon to heat the air.The two women, the two-year-old, Andreas Strelzyk, 11, and Peter Wetzel, 5, watch the eerie spectacle. At first, the tongue of flame leaps back because the balloon is too flat. It singes Peter Strelzyk's hair and body and scatters the families. Then things happen fast, too fast.
Soon the balloon begins to lift as the air inside heats, sucking the flame in easily. The strings to the gondola and from the gondola to the ground grow very taut. Wetzel lights the burner in the gondola, which is connected to the four tanks also in the gondola. This will power the balloon in flight.
But once before, during a test, Strelzyk had noticed that the balloon lost too much hot air switching from the external flame thrower to the gondola's burner, so he gave it an extra shot of flame from the thrower.
It was too much. The anchor spike tore from the ground like a bullet, narrowly missing the canopy and grazing the two men.
Strelzyk screams to the women and children: "Get in! It's going."
They jump on fast. But the balloon is tipping toward catastrophe because one string is still tied to the ground. Wetzel sees it and cuts the gondola free. The floor beneath them levels.
The balloon rises swiftly into the darkness. Nothing more can be seen on the ground which, after 10 minutes, is about 6,000 feet below them. Only the hissing of the gas burner and the glow of its flame is to be seen or heard. Minutes later, spotlights play in the air beneath them. Fear grips the families. But the searchlights never found them.
The thermometer reads minus 8 degrees centigrade. The sedative begins to wear off the two-year-old. Her mother sings a lullaby.
After 23 minutes elapse, the balloon begins to lose altitude slowly. Then the burners go off the balloon begins to spin slowly and their descent accelerates as the hot air cools.
Fear again seizes the fugitives. Two months earlier, on July 4, they had tried the same thing and come down 200 yards short of the border. Amazingly, no one caught them.
This time, Petra Wetzel spots red and yellor lights on the ground, a sign of hope because those colored lights were not common in the East. Soon woods, hills and farm houses can be seen. Wetzel points a spotlight toward the ground.
The balloon floats over a wooded area, clips a small treee, bounces off some bushes and lands hard in the grassy field. "Are we in the west?" Doris Strelzyk asks. Nobody is sure.
The families hide in a barn and see farm equipment that reinforces their feeling that this time they have in fact made it. Then a car comes up the road that Wetzel first thinks is an East German Trabant, and then a Russian Moskowitxsch.
But then he sees the police lettering and notices the oblong headlights which car-buff Wetzel knows identifies it as an Audi. The Audi is made in West Germany.