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DENVER (Reuters) - An American 6-year-old set off a massive search-and-rescue operation and media frenzy on Thursday for fear he was inside a homemade helium balloon that broke loose and drifted thousands of feet above Colorado for hours before he was found safe at home.
Falcon Heene was discovered hiding in a box in the attic above his family's garage, hours after the odd silver contraption had deflated and landed softly in a dirt field, Larimer County Sheriff James Alderden said.
"Apparently, he's been there the whole time, hiding in a box, a cardboard box, in an attic above the garage," Alderden told reporters after a long and frantic day.
Falcon's older brother had reported seeing him climb inside a compartment on the balloon, which was built by his amateur scientist father and resembled a "flying saucer" spacecraft, before it floated away from the family's home in Fort Collins, Colorado.
U.S. cable news networks interrupted coverage of a town-hall meeting by President Barack Obama to broadcast live footage of the small Mylar airship for two hours as it soared some 50 miles east across Colorado, trailed by U.S. National Guard helicopters.
Authorities considered desperate measures to bring the craft down safely and, after discovering that Falcon was not inside, had begun scouring the countryside for any sign of the boy.
Speaking to reporters outside his home, father Richard Heene said that his older son had watched and videotaped Falcon climbing inside a box attached to the bottom of the apparatus.
"This little guy decided to go inside the utility compartment," Heene said of Falcon, who clung to his father during the interview. "Sure enough he got in but obviously he got out so we don't know. He said he was hiding in the attic."
Asked by reporters if he would be billed for the massive search-and-rescue operation amid mounting outrage over the incident, he said simply, "I sure hope not."
Heene described the craft as an experimental vehicle that "people can pull out of their garage and hover above traffic 50 to 100 feet," but said the invention was in its early stages.
He declined to detail how it broke free of its moorings, saying only: "There was a mishap. I'm not going to lay the blame on anybody. It was supposed to be tethered down and it wasn't tethered down."
Local authorities, who had searched the Heene home but overlooked Falcon in the attic, said they had no choice but to assume that he was aboard the runaway balloon.
"We had to just try and get that thing tracked, disabled or brought down," Larimer County Sheriff's spokesman Eric Nelson told MSNBC. "As it turned out, the balloon was deflating itself and we never had to do that.
Of the failed search for Falcon, Nelson said, "The fact that it didn't occur to anybody to go up and look in a box in the attic is in my opinion reasonable."
Heene was described as a storm chaser and amateur scientist who had involved his wife and sons in his activities. The family also appeared on the ABC-TV reality show "Wife Swap," in which families switch mothers to deal with family problems.
On its website, ABC described the Heene family as devoting its time to "scientific experiments that include looking for extraterrestrials and building a research-gathering flying saucer to send into the eye of the storm."
Writing by Dan Whitcomb