FORT COLLINS, Colo. - For hours on Thursday, people around the country were gripped by television images of a homemade, silvery balloon careening through the skies, whooshing over fields and trees and yards with a 6-year-old boy believed inside.
A search party was readied - on foot, on horseback, in helicopters with infrared sensors - to scan the aircraft's path of more than 60 miles, some fearing the boy might have fallen.
In the afternoon, the balloon landed near Denver International Airport, but the boy was not in it. At last, near dusk, the boy was found, hiding in a box in his family's garage attic, fearful his father would be angry at him for touching the flying machine his father had built in their back yard.
The boy's journey, it turned out, had never begun.
"Quite frankly, I couldn't stand," the boy's father, Richard Heene, said of the moment his youngest son, Falcon, suddenly reappeared inside the family's home in Fort Collins. "I just hit the floor with my knees," Heene said, as Falcon, chomping pizza and occasionally grinning, stood among reporters in the family's yard. "He scared the heck out of us."
It was a cheery ending to a peculiar story, one that had sent those who watched it unfold on cable news through a vast range of emotions, from horrified to mystified to relieved.
By nightfall, questions were emerging about the public costs of the saga, which briefly interrupted departures from the Denver airport, and about how Falcon had managed to stay hidden in the garage attic even as authorities twice searched the home.
But Heene - whose family (including three young boys) has been the focus of national attention before, twice appearing on reality TV show Wife Swap, and has been interviewed by local media in Denver for their love of chasing stormy weather - said that all was exactly as it appeared. One of his older sons had seen Falcon near the helium-filled aircraft Heene had long been building, just moments before its tether came loose and it flew off. And, so, he said, all day, the family - and the nation - believed that the boy was inside the craft.
The contraption, something neighbors said they had seen the science-loving Heene working on for ages, took to the skies around 11 a.m. (1 p.m. EDT) over this mostly rural region of northern Colorado. Within about 30 minutes, family members, hearing the insistent story of Falcon's brother Bradford, 10, summoned the authorities.
Soon, authorities were racing in helicopters and fire engines after the craft - topped with a balloon about 20 feet wide and 7 feet long - as cameras in news helicopters followed.
It whipped along on the gusty day, 20 mph at times, seeming to dart and bob. It reached perhaps as high as 10,000 feet, authorities said, and hurtled along. Its small compartment was closed from view, so those watching the images on television could only imagine the terror of a 6-year-old inside.
The Air Force Rescue Coordination Center at Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida was contacted. The FAA began tracking the balloon to help authorities and avoid midair conflicts.
"It's hard to figure out how many rules got broken here," said Bill Voss, president of the nonprofit Flight Safety Foundation.
The Colorado Army National Guard scrambled an OH-58 Kiowa helicopter and a Black Hawk UH-60 to try to rescue the boy, possibly by lowering someone to the balloon. The helicopter flights alone cost about $14,500.
It was a problem with no precedent, and theories spilled forth. Some authorities feared the boy would get hypothermia in the higher altitudes. Some spoke of flying a helicopter above it, and trying to send a rush of air down to push the balloon to the ground. Or they could shoot at it. "We may end up having to breach the balloon, possibly with small-arms fire," said Erik Nilsson, the emergency manager in Larimer County.
And then, after nearly three hours, with cameras still rolling, the craft floated gently to a rest on a bare field not far from the Denver airport. As emergency vehicles surrounded the craft, the authorities nervously opened it. They found no one inside.
That set off a whole new set of questions.
Could Falcon have been inside a basket or gondola that some authorities said they believed had initially been attached to the balloon? Had anyone seen anything fall off during the harrowing flight? The authorities seemed to be weighing all possibilities, including, the chance that Falcon might simply have never been inside the craft at all. And might be home hiding.
And so, as Jim Alderden, the sheriff of Larimer County, was speaking to reporters from a park near the Heene family home about the land search that was under way, news filtered in.
Alderden flashed two thumbs up and said simply: "He's alive. He's in the house."
Asked about the possibility that the event was a hoax, he said: "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."
He noted that authorities had been at the house for a good portion of the day and that Falcon had been well hidden.
During a live interview with CNN, Falcon said he had heard his family calling his name.
"You did?" mother Mayumi Heene said.
"Why didn't you come out?" Richard Heene asked.
Falcon answered, "You had said that we did this for a show."
Later, Richard Heene bristled when the family was asked to clarify and said he didn't know what his son meant.
The sheriff said he would meet with investigators today to see if the case warranted further investigation. "As this point there's no indication that this was a hoax," Alderden said.
The swarming cameras did not seem to trouble the Heenes; the family had appeared in a March episode of Wife Swap, which films the conflicts that arise when the mothers of two families switch places for two weeks. (The Heene family was selected by voters to participate in the show's 100th episode because they were viewer favorites. In the episode, the other family was from St. Augustine.
According to the show's Web site: "When the Heene family aren't chasing storms, they devote their time to scientific experiments that include looking for extraterrestrials and building a research-gathering flying saucer to send into the eye of the storm."
Richard Heene, 48, acknowledged having snapped at Falcon earlier on Thursday - before the balloon got loose - for having crawled inside it.
"He scared me because he yelled at me," Falcon said. "That's why I went in the attic."
At one point, Falcon seemed to wander off from the news conference, but his mother, who described the day's events as a miracle, followed him, saying, "I don't want to lose him again."
Information from the Associated Press and Washington Post was used in this report.