Police to investigate whether family staged balloon boy's 'disappearance'

Was it all a load of hot air? The parents of a six-year-old at the centre of the "balloon boy" incident hit the airwaves yesterday to deny angrily reports that they staged their son's disappearance in an elaborate publicity stunt.

Richard Heene, who on Thursday sensationally claimed that his child, Falcon, was drifting across the Colorado sky in a silver helium balloon, said rumours that the whole thing was a hoax are "extremely pathetic" and "absolutely untrue". Police have launched an investigation, and are anxious to establish why, shortly after the boy was reunited with his parents, he appeared to admit to a TV interviewer that the whole thing was staged "for a show".

In interviews with all three major US television networks yesterday, Mr Heene was repeatedly asked if he faked the incident, which began when a large, saucer-shaped weather balloon floated from the garden of his family home in the city of Fort Collins, near Denver.

"I'm starting to get a little ticked off with this," he replied. "I'm repetitively getting asked this ... It's horrible. After the crap we went through? No. No. No."

Falcon was at the centre of both a massive rescue operation and an international media feeding-frenzy on Thursday, when his parents announced that he had climbed inside the home-made balloon, and drifted away in high winds.

Dramatic news footage showed the craft careering across the plains of northern Colorado, at several thousand feet. Hundreds of rescuers, including police, fire and ambulance crews and helicopter-borne members of the National Guard, were scrambled. But when the balloon eventually landed, Falcon was nowhere to be found. Later, rescuers learnt he had been hiding in a small cubby-hole in the roof of the family's garage.

Mr Heene initially claimed that his son had secreted himself there after he was told off for misbehaving. But when CNN asked Falcon to explain why he had gone into hiding, the boy replied, "We did this for a show".

The Heene family's eccentric background has fuelled rumours of a stunt. They had twice previously appeared on the programme Wife Swap, where Richard was described as a "fringe scientist" who spends his spare time chasing storms and hunting UFOs to "find evidence to support his belief that all humans are descended from aliens".

During further interviews yesterday, Falcon appeared to panic onscreen when news anchors cross-examined his dad. On NBC, he threw up into a plastic. On ABC, he said, "Mom, I feel like I'm going to vomit", and ran out of the room.