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Meet Dan Nowell, the Real Balloon Boy

Long before the Heene family's hoax, one little boy really did get stuck dangling from a flying hot air balloon—and lived to tell about it.


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Last week, you probably sat in front of your television for hours transfixed by a flying silver balloon, worried sick about the six-year-old boy stuck inside of it—only to discover that the “Balloon Boy” incident was a hoax masterminded by the child’s parents, who were intent on getting their own reality TV show.

While we’re relieved that young Falcon Heene is safe and sound, we’re getting tired of hearing about the Balloon Boy who never left the ground. Instead, why not travel back in time to learn about the original Balloon Boy, Dan Nowell?

In 1964, Nowell was an 11-year-old boy who had gone to watch a hot air balloon lift off in Marin, California. The balloon’s pilot told Nowell and the other children to grab on to the balloon’s tether lines in advance of take-off—but when the pilot told the children to release the lines so that the balloon could lift off, Nowell couldn’t hear him over the noise of the hot air burners. While the others released the cords, Nowell kept holding on—and lifted up along with the balloon.

The hot air balloon rose to the height of a five-story building, with Nowell dangling from the side. His hand was wrapped up in the cord, cutting off his circulation. Though Nowell was calling for help to alert the pilot, the pilot wasn’t able to hear him over the noise of the burners.

“We all feared the boy was only holding on and would soon have to let go,” Jim Kean, a photographer covering the balloon launch, told the Independent Journal in the days after the incident. “It looked as if he would drop to his death at any moment. Men were crying and women fell down praying. It was the worst thing I had ever seen.”

Finally, after ten minutes of flying, the pilot turned off the burners, and was able to hear the boy’s screams. He sent the balloon into a rapid descent, and it landed in a family’s yard, two miles away from where it had taken off. Luckily, Nowell had a soft impact on the grass, but he needed to be rushed to the hospital immediately: he was in shock, and his hand had turned blue from lack of oxygen.

Fortunately, Nowell’s recovery was quick, and he soon found himself a media darling, appearing on talk shows and game shows alike. He received countless letters and gifts from strangers who had heard his survival story—many of them simply addressed to “Balloon Boy, USA.”

“It’s all a blur,” Nowell told the San Jose Mercury News. “Notoriety is something that’s an interesting thing in life to deal with. It probably left me a little more humble after that. I realize it’s part of our culture, the media frenzy.”

These days, 56-year-old Nowell stays out of the spotlight, but he’s lived a rich and happy life since that terrifying day: he owns a business focused on custom home remodeling, and is a board member for Bread and Roses, a nonprofit focused on bringing music to the seriously ill.

And despite the stress of his ride in the sky, Nowell is still a fan of hot air balloons. “I didn’t have any psychological scarring from the event,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle. “I even went up in a balloon again with the same pilot.” But we’re guessing he made sure to travel in the basket.

Filed under: Features, History, Weird,

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