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The Situation Room

Boy Missing After Balloon Escapes; Mothers Beg Iran For Children's Release; Civil War Pardon

Aired October 15, 2009 - 16:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: All right, Rick and Kyra, thanks very much.

We're staying on top of the breaking news out of Colorado. Right now, a search is under way for a six-year-old boy who may or may not have climbed into a homemade helium balloon.

At one point it was deeply feared he was trapped inside the balloon as it raced thousands of feet above the ground for well over an hour. When the balloon finally landed, there was no one inside. And now we are all trying desperately to piece together what happened, and, most important, to determine where the boy is.

These are pictures from earlier in the day, when this runaway hot air balloon was simply flying over Colorado. And it was widely believed that little six-year-old boy was inside. Now we know, once that balloon came down to a landing outside of Colorado Springs, there was no one inside.

We're watching all of this very, very closely, the mystery continuing, some suggesting, perhaps, the boy was never in that balloon to begin with. But they haven't found him in or around the home in Fort Collins, Colorado.

We have extensive coverage coming up of this mystery. We're going to continue our coverage, as you have been watching live here on CNN over the past hour, hour-and-a-half.

I want to go to our Internet correspondent, Abbi Tatton, because she's getting a lot of information specifically on the boy and the family.

Abbi, what are we learning?

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Wolf, the Heene family from Fort Collins, Colorado, the information we're getting here from the ABC Web site, because it appears that the Heene family were featured on the -- the show "Wife Swap" at some point.

And, so, you have a biography here of the family, a family that's described as living life on the edge, the Heene family, the kids regularly taken out of school, it says, so they can go on storm- chasing missions to prove Richard's -- that's the dad -- theory about magnetic fields and gravity.

You can tell this is a family, a father who's extremely interested in science, in meteorology. He has a Web site as well that he appears on called The Science Detectives doing shows about UFOs, doing shows about the weather, three children, three boys appearing in this photo from the "Wife Swap" Web site here, three young sons.

We don't know which was the son who was reported to have gotten into that helium balloon earlier this afternoon, that son who we're still trying to find out his location at this point -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Because there are some Web sites suggesting the boy was never in that balloon to begin with, although he was feared to be inside. Others suggested perhaps he fell out, although there's apparently no indication that any of the latches were opened or -- or there was any tampering that would have allowed a little boy to fall out of that kind of balloon.

You're monitoring all of this out -- out on these different Web sites, Abbi.

TATTON: Yes, absolutely.

And we were all watching, of course, as well, when that balloon landed to see just what would happen next, so much speculation at this point, so many people watching up in the skies in the Fort Collins area trying to figure out what happened.

As I said, we don't know which was the child that might have been involved in this incident, but, from the photo of the family here, three young boys. And, Wolf, we're all waiting to hear more details at this point.

BLITZER: And we're praying that that little boy never got on that balloon to begin with; it was just flying around without anyone inside that hot air balloon.

We're going to continue to monitor this. And I know you are, Abbi. Stand by.

I want to go to Tom Foreman. He's here in THE SITUATION ROOM. He's monitoring what's going on, on the magic wall. Show our viewers a little bit of what has unfolded over the past, what, hour-and-a-half or so?

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes. Wolf, it's been very interesting to watch all this.

This is Colorado. I want to give people an idea of where this occurred. Denver is right down here, Fort Collins up here, pushing toward Wyoming. It's a big retirement community here. I'm just going to move this aside. You get a sense of what we're talking about.

This is Fort Collins right down in here. It's right up against the foothills, the -- the beginning of the Rockies, as you come off the Great Plains. You're looking west over this way. This is east. Like I said, it's a great big retirement community. A lot of folks live up in this area. And, somewhere in here -- we haven't pinpointed the neighborhood right now -- this thing took off. Now, one of the big questions is, you know, for a long time, we thought this kid was on board. We don't know now what the whole score is. We know it didn't land with him. That's for sure.

Let's put this aside and look at roughly what we're talking about. Denver International Airport is down south right down here. Here's Denver. Here's the airport where some of the rescue missions were taking off from, down in this area.

We don't really know what seemed to have happened. But best we can understand from the description, it was moving this direction, moving a little bit south and toward the east. We don't -- really haven't pinpointed exactly where it came down. But that seemed to be the general flow of it. And that would be normal, because the wind normally comes off the foothills.

I lived here for about 10 years, so I have a sense of this in a personal way. The wind would blow this way. It would move out toward the Great Plains. There's nothing but openness out here. So, that was a good part of this, no matter how you sliced it.

But now I want to move on to the other part and talk about one of the other elements that we had to bear in mind here with this whole thing. Elevation was always an issue here, Wolf, when we thought there might be somebody on board.

I talked to helicopter pilots out here, because the idea was, how much could a helicopter get near this thing if it was gaining altitude? We have heard a variety of reports about how high this was, anywhere from around somewhere 5,000 feet to above -- to like 7,500 feet above the starting level. And the starting level down here is about 5,000 feet.

So, you're really quite a ways up in the air. You're getting close at this to where the helicopter pilots would have to have oxygen. And then by the time you get up to 18,000 feet, they can't fly at all.

So, we don't really know what that -- happened. The question right now, though, if this child was never on board this, the question you were asking a little while ago, could this even lift him? And the best I can figure, Wolf -- I have been doing some -- trying to revisit some old high school physics, here.

I think this had to have at least 3,700 grams of helium in it to lift a 50-pound child. Now, we're still trying to do the math to see if it's possible, 20 feet across, about five feet deep, whether or that's enough lift to have even got off the ground with a kid. But we will figure that out, Wolf, and we will let you know in a little bit.

BLITZER: The -- this -- this -- this balloon apparently went pretty far -- and you know the geography -- from...

FOREMAN: Sure. BLITZER: ... Fort Collins all the way toward, what, Colorado Springs. I wonder how far of a distance that is.

FOREMAN: That's a haul. If it, in fact, landed near Colorado Springs, to get down Fort Collins, to move all the way south there, I think -- I don't think I have any more maps in here.

But, if you -- if you put Fort Collins here and you put Denver down here, Colorado Springs is down here at least the same distance here. So, you're talking about a good hour from here. You're talking about another good hour from here. They said he was traveling about 25 miles an hour at one point.

And if my math is correct from what they said earlier, he was -- excuse me -- he -- the balloon was airborne for more than two-and-a- half-hours. So, that's possible, depending on how close you wanted to get to Colorado Springs.

But it would indicate -- it would be consistent with what we were showing earlier about not only an eastward movement, but also a lot of southward movement, because this is all almost directly south to go from up here at Fort Collins past Denver here, and then down here to C. Springs.

BLITZER: Hold on a second.

Chad Myers, our meteorologist, is also monitoring what's going on.

Chad, tell our viewers about the geography or how far this balloon may have traveled.

CHAD MYERS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Yes, I know someone came up with near Prospect Lake early in the investigation. But I don't think that balloon ever got that far south. I really don't, because Weld County was always in control of this search and this rescue.

It got out toward Larimer County. And let me just kind of give you an idea.

Tom, I know you know this. From Colorado Springs to Denver is a haul driving just on I-25, and then another haul on up to Fort Collins. And the wind was at every level, at the surface, at 5,000 feet, 10,000 feet above the surface, it was always out of the west or to the northwest, basically 290 -- 270 would be due east -- so, a little bit south of due from the west to the east.

So, this thing ended up in Weld County out here, farther east and Northeast of Denver. I don't believe this thing ever got down to Colorado Springs. And that Prospect Lake report, I think that was erroneous, Tom.


FOREMAN: I think -- you know what? I -- I think that Chad is right here, because when I heard that, my first response, Wolf, was, how on earth did it wind up down by C. Springs, because that is really a haul?

And you're right. Look at this map right here. This is Weld County. And Weld County stops well north of Denver here. And Colorado Springs is way down here. So, I -- I think there's something wrong about that. It -- all indications are that it was somewhere right up in this area right in here...

MYERS: Absolutely.

FOREMAN: ... just below the C and the O there, somewhere in that area.

BLITZER: All right, hold on for a moment, because we have a hot air balloon expert, Craig Kennedy. He is joining us on the phone right now.

Craig, thanks very much.

Based on what you know, the dimensions, helium, is it possible this hot air balloon could have taken off with a 50- or 60-pound little boy on board?

CRAIG KENNEDY, HOT AIR BALLOON EXPERT: Well, Wolf, let's start with this. It's actually a gas balloon, a helium balloon. Hot air had no part in its lift.

But, doing some rough calculations with our friends at the SuperiAire balloon port here in Albuquerque, that balloon probably contained about 2,000 cubic feet of helium, which would, at our altitudes in that Fort Collins area, give the equivalent of roughly 100 pounds of lift.

So, I think it was a pretty good bet that this child did not actually get lifted by this balloon. So, the question is, where is he?

BLITZER: Well, that's a good question. Maybe -- and we can only hope and pray he's some place around the house. He might be scared. Maybe he thought he was doing something bad, so he's sort of hiding out. We can only hope he's hiding under the bed or in a closet some place and he will be found very quickly. That would be a really nice ending to what so many of us were worried was happening to that little boy.

But walk us through this process, how a balloon like this could just sort of run away and take off and then escape that tether?

KENNEDY: You know, when I first got this phone call from one of your producers that I have worked with in the past here in Albuquerque, I knew nothing of what was going on. And I started gathering my information by watching the helicopter pictures and hearing what your folks had to say as well.

And I think early in the game, we were able to determine that that balloon was listing. It wasn't stable in its flight, like it had a payload below it. So, for that reason, I think, fairly early on, we felt like there was no child aboard, that there was nobody on board that balloon.

Now, looking at the ropes that were coming off the sides of that saucer-shape, I guess like a Jiffy Pop-looking aircraft, it appeared that, you know, somebody could have simply untied them. I don't think that the balloon -- it -- who knows. The balloon could have broken free on its own.

But what we were waiting for was to see how the balloon would land.


BLITZER: And we saw -- we saw that the balloon did land in that dirt field.


BLITZER: Craig, if -- if -- if...

KENNEDY: Think about this very quickly.

BLITZER: Well, let me just ask you this question. If the little boy was on the balloon, but fell out in the course of these two hours where it was simply flying around, that would have been obvious to those who came upon the balloon once it landed, isn't that right?

KENNEDY: Well, I was wondering what in the world the authorities were doing hacking and whacking at that helium aircraft without first getting a look underneath, where a -- where a child possibly could have been in that little compartment.

You know, when that balloon went up, being made of Mylar, unlike a latex balloon that would pop as it hit its peak altitude, a Mylar balloon has seams in it that would have eventually given out. And the gas would have started escaping from those seams.

And I think that's what happened. And, as the helium started to come out, the balloon came down and made a picture-perfect landing. But it also didn't seem to land fast and heavy, like it had a heavy payload aboard.

BLITZER: Chad Myers and Tom Foreman are here. And I know they have some questions, Craig, for you as well.

Let me go to Chad first.

Chad, go ahead.

MYERS: Tom, I just -- or I just wonder, of the lift that this thing had and the size of this payload, there was never supposed to be anyone in this. I mean, this was not supposed to be even for a small adult or anything. This was not for a human flight, correct?

KENNEDY: Certainly not.

I mean, look -- judging by the size of the balloon, this was a toy balloon from the get-go. Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta was just concluded here. And, typically, when the weather is right, we have manned balloon flights with a 1,000-cubic meter gas balloon that will lift two human beings and all of their equipment for two, sometimes three days.

So, this little tiny balloon of 2,000 cubic feet with a lift of only 100 pounds, I don't see how it ever lifted a child in the first place.

BLITZER: Tom Foreman?


FOREMAN: You know, and it's an interesting point you're raising here.

I want to look at this graphic for a minute. You're saying, if I understand you correctly, that, basically, the upward lift of this from the beginning was only about 100 pounds. If you had a child in here who was 50 pounds, you're already stressing the lift.

And I guess your point is this. For this thing to be tilted like this in flight, sometimes almost up on edge, you're saying, boy, that's an awfully strange arrangement of the lift, which is all wanting to pull straight up...

KENNEDY: Exactly.


FOREMAN: ... and have the weight over here on the side, which just physically can't happen.

KENNEDY: That's correct.

The initial graphic that you were showing us, where the balloon was horizontal, would suggest that there was a payload aboard. But once that balloon in our pictures that we were seeing from the helicopters was showing the balloon fully listing like that, and it was -- it was wavering quite a bit -- it was moving back and forth -- that suggested to me that there was no significant payload aboard.

FOREMAN: Even if there -- even if there were weight in here and it hit turbulence, you would tend to get more of a rocking motion like this, as the weight pulled the bottom, right?

KENNEDY: Correct. It would have moved back and forth.

FOREMAN: It wouldn't swing all the way up on the side and stay like that?

KENNEDY: It would have attempted to continue to stabilize and fly more flat.

FOREMAN: Mm-hmm. BLITZER: And, so, just to be precise, Craig -- and you're -- you're the balloon expert for us -- if you had to make a conclusion on all of the information you have seen so far, you would conclude that there was -- the little boy was never in that balloon?

KENNEDY: I would hope that that child was not in the balloon. And I would say physically, it -- it is possible that perhaps the child made a very short flight.

I'm certainly hoping that that's not the outcome. But seeing no hatches open that would have suggested a departure, I don't think that child was ever aboard that -- that machine.

BLITZER: If you -- if you could bear with us, Craig Kennedy, I want you to stick around. I want to have -- have some -- we have some tape of a neighbor of this family in Fort Collins who just spoke to our affiliate.

Watch this.


MARK, HEENE FAMILY'S NEIGHBOR: I saw them working with it, with it this morning. And they were, you know, having a -- basically, the whole family was out there and they were working with it.

And I went for a walk at around 11:00 or so. And when I came back is when I found out that -- you know, that the event happened. I do know, because my wife had talked to Mayumi, the craft was -- was supposed to -- they were experimenting with it. It was supposed to hover at around 20 feet in the air.

And, obviously, something went wrong with that. I don't know -- I don't know what happened. But something made it obviously do a lot more than go 20 feet in the air.

(AUDIO GAP) realized that the -- that this craft had -- did get -- go off into the air that their youngest son, Falcon, who's 6, was not there and he must have been in the craft. He must have got in that -- that basket part of the aircraft.

And -- and, obviously, you know, it's an extremely terrible thing. And we feel so sorry for them. They're -- they're great kids. They're very well -- seem like well-adjusted, happy kids. They're a great family.


BLITZER: All right. Well, that's -- that -- the neighbor of the family in Fort Collins speaking about this little six-year-old boy. He says the six-year-old boy's name is Falcon.

Craig Kennedy, the balloon expert who is -- who is with us, did you get any clues from what we just heard that might help resolve this mystery? KENNEDY: Well, I think you could just read from everything the gentleman was saying that this balloon was never intended for manned flight. I don't believe that it was ever designed that way. And I can't see a -- a family experimenting with -- with any human beings on board.

But, again, I really feel strongly that because we didn't see any hatches opened in that bottom part, that would suggest to me that there never was anyone aboard in the first place.

BLITZER: So, the search will -- should continue in and around the house in Fort Collins.

Tom Foreman is still with us, Craig, so stand by. He's got a question.

FOREMAN: You know, I was just going to say, Craig, we were just doing the math here. And, Wolf, I mentioned earlier the amount of lift you would have to have on this.

We just completed the math. I said you would have to have about 2,700, pushing 2,800 grams of helium to lift a 50-pound child in the air. And we just finished the math on this.

This would just -- you know, it differs depending on your altitude. But we're coming in at about 2,500 in this.

So, Craig, I have to concur. There's no real reason to believe that this necessarily would have lifted a 50-pound kid in the first place. It might have, maybe, but not very well.

KENNEDY: And our friends at the -- and our friends at the SuperiAire balloon port here in Albuquerque, you know, just looking at the dimensions of the -- the balloon after it finally landed out on the plains, judging by the -- the size of the men that were dealing with it, that that was probably a 2,000-cubic foot balloon, which should only have about 1,000 -- about 100 pounds of lift.

BLITZER: We are getting a statement from the Larimer County Sheriff's Office, the spokeswoman. Let me read it to our viewers.

At this point, this spokeswoman says: "We are thinking that he did not fall out of the balloon and is somewhere on the ground. And we are searching the neighborhood. The basket itself was not breached. It does not look like he fell out of it. But, again, this is all conjecture. I'm very confident we will find him. I think it's a matter of him being a little scared. Maybe he's not ready to be found" -- that from the spokeswoman for the Larimer County Sheriff's Office.

We can only hope and pray that that is, in fact, the case, that the boy is sort of hiding out someplace, and that they're going to find him in or around the house very, very soon.

Let me bring in Chad Myers, because he's got some more on what is going on. Chad, what are you thinking?

MYERS: Just very quickly, Wolf, because I think there was some confusion earlier when someone reported Prospect Lake, and it was actually Prospect Reservoir, which makes a whole lot more sense to me and to you, Tom, because Prospect Lake is near Colorado Springs. Prospect Reservoir is only about 50 miles east-southeast of where this balloon took off -- Wolf.

BLITZER: It's a fascinating statement.

This woman, by the way, the sheriff's county spokeswoman, was on CNN just a little while ago. And she was making these points, this spokeswoman for the Larimer County sheriff's office, Eloise Campanella suggesting that there's no evidence that the boy fell out of the balloon, that they are searching the neighborhood right now, and that they're hoping they will find the boy soon.

She says: "I'm very confident we will find him. I think it's a matter of him being a little scared. Maybe he's not ready to be found."

We can only hope that that, in fact, is the case.

Chad, you know, as this all unfolded -- and you were there watching it from almost the very, very beginning -- you know, our -- a lot of -- a lot of times, you know, we cover live events on television. I don't remember -- Tom Foreman, you can weigh in. You have been a reporter on television for a long time as well.

Do you ever remember anything, a runaway balloon with maybe a six-year-old little boy on board?

MYERS: No. No.

FOREMAN: You know, the nearest thing we have to this, Wolf, has been those occasions when you have had a jet take off, a private jet, lose pressure, and the people look consciousness in the cabin. And we have had cases like that, where one has flown almost across the country, with people tracking that.

But I have never remembered one with a balloon...


BLITZER: Here's a question for Craig Kennedy, who is a balloon expert. And it just crossed all of minds. Short of Superman, what, if anything, could have been done while this balloon was flying, assuming there was a little six-year-old boy inside, what, if anything, could have been done to save that little boy?

KENNEDY: I don't know of a single thing that could have been done under those circumstances.

But you were asking just a moment ago, was there anything that we have heard of in the past that even resembles this remotely? And, yes, there is.

Back in the, I believe, late '80s, there was a 12-year-old boy, 11- or 12-year-old boy -- and I believe he was mentally handicapped -- who went for a balloon flight in the middle of winter. And the pilot, upon attempting to land, was bounced out of the basket.

Under those circumstances, the balloon rebounded. And this is a hot air balloon. The rebound took him up several hundred feet, perhaps even 1,000 feet. And the boy had the presence of mind to get on the radio and talk with the crew chief.

And they chased that little boy and the balloon for many, many miles, as a gentleman by the name of David Hollenbaugh (ph) from Colorado Springs taught the child how to fly the balloon by radio and got him safely to the ground.

BLITZER: Well, that was a nice -- a nice ending on that. I wasn't familiar with that.

Jeanne Meserve -- stick around, Craig.

Jeanne Meserve, our homeland security correspondent, is joining us now with more.

And what are you picking up, Jeanne?

JEANNE MESERVE, CNN HOMELAND SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, just to tell you that authorities were really improvising as they went along here, as you have mentioned, nothing like this on record before.

The FAA was tracking this -- this balloon to try and keep other aircraft out of its path. The -- NORAD was on alert. They were ready to launch, if requested. But they weren't. The only organization that we know of that put helicopters up in the air, besides news organizations, obviously, was the Colorado Army National Guard.

They put up two helicopters. And they had a couple of theories on what they might do here to try and get this craft on the ground or get the boy off of the balloon. One possibility was a hoist, using a hoist on one of those helicopters to lower somebody down, to either put additional weight on this helicopter or perhaps maybe even to try to do some sort of extraction.

They also were talking about the possibility of using the backwash from these helicopters to steer this balloon, to keep it out of the way of power lines or any other obstacle which might appear in its aircraft (sic).

They also were talking to the ultralight community about possibly using them in some way, perhaps to go up and attach some sort of additional weight on to this balloon and bring it down.

But, clearly, this was uncharted territory. Nobody had ever dealt with a situation like this. They were evaluating the situation, trying to figure out which one of these techniques or if something else was going to do the trick. And, then, of course, it landed, and thank goodness, safely, and with no boy on board.

As you mentioned, we still don't know his whereabouts. The search is on -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Well, it's amazing, the kind of techniques they were thinking of using.

Craig Kennedy, those -- those -- those techniques were pretty impressive, given the fact that they had to improvise.

KENNEDY: Well, I think that those would have been on the very outside possibility of what they could have done.

I could only imagine the rotor wash coming from the helicopter in order to get close enough to lower somebody down. But, again, that's pure speculation.

I really felt that the very best thing that could have happened was for the sun to continue to go down, and for that balloon to cool off, the helium inside to lose its effective lift, and the closer to sunset that you got, the lower the surface winds, the slower the winds on the ground, and that the balloon could make a nice landing. Well, it happened a lot earlier than I thought.

BLITZER: Yes. And it -- it did land.

Abbi Tatton, our Internet correspondent, is getting some more information on the family in Fort Collins, Colorado.

Abbi, what are you picking up?

TATTON: Wolf, specifically about Richard Heene, the father of this family, well-known to CNN's iReport, because he has submitted videos to us before in the past.

Here he is last year submitting a video to CNN's iReport about his theories about the planet Mars. This is obviously someone who's very interested in science and meteorology. You can find -- elsewhere on the Web, he's got a show called "The Science Detectives," where he puts forward his theories about other planets, about storm-chasing as well.

You will see him riding a motorcycle into a storm, obviously, someone who has got various outlets online and on TV as well, because he's also appeared with his family on an ABC show, obviously, someone with a lot of interests, especially in the areas of science and meteorology that, again, bring us back to this helium balloon that we were watching all afternoon -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, fascinating material, interesting family.

And I'm sure -- sure they're all desperately searching for this little six-year-old boy that is still missing, as far as we know. But they have got a lot of people looking in the neighborhood, around the house for this little six-year-old boy. And let's only hope and pray that they find him, and find him quickly, because the working assumption -- and let's just recap for our viewers who might be tuning in -- the working assumption is now that that little boy was never on board that -- that balloon, that there was a suspicion the boy was on the balloon.

The balloon was flying around, runaway balloon, for more than two hours, before it landed in a dirt field in Colorado. But the boy was not on board. And there's no evidence the boy fell off, fell out of that balloon. As a result, the search goes on in the neighborhood where the -- the family lives.

We have a lot more on this, plus all the other important news of the day coming up. We will take a quick break -- more of our coverage coming up right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: We're staying on top of that story, the mystery unfolding in Colorado right now -- the six-year-old little boy who was thought to be aboard a runaway balloon, apparently not so. The balloon landed. No one was inside, no evidence that the little boy fell out. So, there's a search under way in and around his home in Fort Collins, Colorado, right now. We will have the latest for you. That's coming up.

Also happening now, three young people held in Iran for the crime of hiking in the wrong place at the wrong time, today, their mothers are pleading for their freedom. Our Mary Snow is covering the story.

And it took almost 100 years, but two African-American men wrongly executed for the murder of a Civil War veteran have been pardoned. Nationally syndicated radio talk show host Tom Joyner will tell us why it was so important that justice be done.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

President Obama is promising New Orleans residents he will never forget them or what they lost during Hurricane Katrina.

BLITZER: President Obama's promising New Orleans residents he'll never forget them or what they lost during Hurricane Katrina. He just wrapped up his first trip to the city since becoming president. He faced critics who say he didn't visit soon enough and recovery hasn't happened fast enough.

Our White House correspondent, Dan Lothian, is traveling with the president. He's down on the Gulf Coast right now.

How did it go today, Dan?

DAN LOTHIAN, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, you know, the president was touting progress that this administration has made, $1 billion that was caught up in red tape now freed for recovery. Billions more not only for New Orleans, but also for the entire state of Louisiana.

Now, at this town hall meeting at the University of New Orleans, there were questions about health care, education and domestic violence. But there was at least one question from a man who feels the government has not done enough.


LOTHIAN (voice-over): On the long road to recovery, the victims of Hurricane Katrina told President Obama about the challenging potholes and speed bumps that remain.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Why is it four years after Katrina, we're still fighting with the federal government for money to repair our devastated city?

BARACK H. OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We are working as hard as we can, as quickly as we can to process through many of these issues.

LOTHIAN: But even before Mr. Obama paid a visit to this Lower Ninth Ward public charter school, criticism that his trip was too short and too shortsighted, ignoring other hard-hit areas like the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

Louisiana Republican Congressman Steve Scalise held a press conference to call out the president.

REP. STEVE SCALISE (R), LOUISIANA: The people of New Orleans deserve more than this drive-through daiquiri summit that he's giving us.

LOTHIAN: But other lawmakers were more measured, praising the visit while encouraging a return to the region in the future.

REP. CHARLEs BOUSTANY (R), LOUISIANA: The entire Gulf Coast was affected by this, and I think due attention should be made to all those areas.

LOTHIAN: A White House aide says Mr. Obama surveyed the landscape extensively during his five previous visits, and that since taking office, more than 20 senior administration officials have made 35 trips to the Gulf Coast.

(MUSIC) LOTHIAN: Four years after Katrina, life and music have returned to New Orleans, but big challenges remain. A 100-year flood protection project is only a third of the way complete. And 1,500 people in Louisiana are still in temporary housing.

New Orleans City Council President Arnie Fielkow says what happens after the president's visit is what everyone should be focused on.

ARNIE FIELKOW, NEW ORLEANS COUNCILMAN-AT-LARGE: To me, the more important point is, how can the federal government and the president and Congress help us as opposed to just the visits? The visits are wonderful, but it's really action that takes place after the visits that's more important to the citizens.


LOTHIAN: Now, President Obama says that his administration will work very hard to put a plan in place, along with the homeland security secretary and also the HUD secretary, to make sure that some of the problems we saw after Katrina will not be repeated -- Wolf.

BLITZER: There was some criticism he was going to New Orleans, but not visiting neighboring Mississippi. Has the White House reacted to the complaints coming from some folks in Mississippi?

LOTHIAN: They really have, Wolf. And essentially, what they say is that the president came here five times before he became president, had a chance to really tour around the region, get a good sense of what was going on the ground.

And they didn't feel it was necessary for him to go out to some of these other regions. He really wanted to come here to New Orleans, to a town hall style meeting where he could, instead of looking around, get a chance to listen.

BLITZER: All right.

Dan Lothian over at the University of New Orleans, watching the story.

We'll get back to you.

The general who led military relief efforts after Katrina says the rebuilding of New Orleans should be farther along. Russel Honore says he understands why some hurricane survivors are frustrated with President Obama. General Honore toured one hard-hit community with CNN's Sean Callebs.


SEAN CALLEBS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Did you think that this area would still be in such a state of flux four years later?

LT. GEN. RUSSEL HONORE (RET.), CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, you know, at that time, we were talking about whether it would ever be reoccupied again. So, it's encouraging to see that the dream has worked for some people, and it's discouraging to see it hasn't worked for others. But, again, how you survive a disaster is directly in proportion to what was happening before.


BLITZER: We're going to have a lot more from General Honore later, including his grade for the Obama administration's efforts to rebuild the Gulf.

There's new heat today on the only Republican senator to vote for a health care reform bill. It's not coming from angry members of her own party. It's coming from some anxious Democrats.

Our senior congressional correspondent, Dana Bash, is taking us behind the scenes.

Dana, what's going on?

DANA BASH, CNN SR. CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, behind the scenes today there was passionate and, we're told, a pretty intense meeting among Senate Democrats on the issue of how to proceed on health care. We are told that about half a dozen liberal Democrats stood up and made a passionate plea for a public option in the health care bill. But the struggle for Democratic leaders is that many conservative Democrats won't go for that. Neither will a very influential Republican senator.


BASH (voice-over): The way Republican Olympia Snowe sees it, she's just using the power any senator has.

SEN. OLYMPIA SNOWE (R), MAINE: The brilliance of our founding fathers was this: that they gave power equally to every member of the United States Senate, whether you represent a large state or a small state.

BASH: But some Democrats think Snowe has too much power over health care. She's the only Republican so far to back a Democratic plan. That carries a lot of weight with the White House and Senate Democratic leaders. Yet, she also opposes what most Democrats want -- a government-run insurance option for health care.

(on camera): Does she have more influence than you do, ultimately, on the health care bill and what it will look like?

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), HOUSE SPEAKER: If I may say, a strange question. Senator Snowe -- I respect Senator Snowe and the constructive role that she has played in the deliberations for the Senate Finance Committee.

BASH: A diplomatic answer from the House Speaker, but we came down here to the basement of the Capitol, where House Democrats met behind these doors. We heard some frustration from rank-and-file Democrats about the influence of Maine's Republican senator. REP. LYNN WOOLSEY (D), CALIFORNIA: This is the United States of America. This is not the United States of Maine.

BASH: What do you mean by that?

WOOLSEY: Well, I mean that one senator cannot hold the entire nation's health care plan hostage.

BASH (voice-over): Snowe's belief is that a public option would only be triggered down the road if health care costs don't come down.

REP. SHEILA JACKSON LEE (D), TEXAS: The idea that we're going to succumb to the insurance industry's fears and then do a trigger, which means that our constituency, the American people, will delay in getting a public option, that's like the house of cards just collapsing on top of us.


BASH: Now, the reality is Senator Snowe wouldn't have the clout she does in shaping a health care bill if there weren't a fair number of conservative Democrats who agree with her on the public option. That's why Democratic leaders, Wolf, are having such a hard time deciding whether or not to include it in the bill that the Senate wants to bring to the Senate floor. Democrats do, rather, by the end of this month.

BLITZER: So, what I hear you saying, Dana, is that because at least one moderate Republican supports it, that puts an enormous amount of pressure on some of these wavering Democrats. They better support it as well, because they could be embarrassed. Is that right?

BASH: Pressure on wavering Democrats. And it's causing some ire among liberal Democrats, who very much want a public option and think that Senator Snowe is part of the reason why they might not get it.

BLITZER: All right.

Dana watching the story for us. A lot at stake.

Thank you.

A new financial blow to senior citizens involving their Social Security checks. Why the Obama administration will deprive them of something they've received for years.

Stand by. We'll explain what's going on.

And a radio host's great uncles executed for murder they didn't commit. Tom Joyner joins us to talk about what happened back then and the pardon his relatives have now received.

And we're following the search for a 6-year-old little boy after fears he was trapped in a runaway balloon.


BLITZER: Next year, the nation's seniors won't see something they've been receiving every year since 1975. We're talking about a cost of living increase in Social Security benefits. The reason cited by the Social Security Administration -- consumer prices have actually gone down. Cost of living increases are tied to inflation, which is currently negative.

To counterbalance the hit, President Obama wants them and other Social Security recipients to get a second round of $250 relief payments. They got a check courtesy of the economic recovery package earlier this year. A second relief payment would represent about a two percent increase for the average Social Security recipient.

Our senior political analyst, Gloria Borger, is joining us.

The president would have to get Congress to approve it. We're talking, what, about $13 billion?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SR. POLITICAL ANALYST: We are, but we've heard from both Republicans and Democrats who, not surprisingly, say that this ought to be done. Of course, they have different approaches to it, Wolf.

So, Republicans are saying that you ought to take the $13 billion to pay for this out of the unspent funds of the current stimulation package, and the Obama administration is saying, no, we just ought to add it to the deficit. But the money in the current stimulus package has already been accounted for.

BLITZER: So who's going to win that fight?

BORGER: Well, we'll have to say. But what's really interesting, Wolf, is that you have both Democrats and Republicans saying we need to spend more money.

Why? Because we see that senior citizens are going to be very important in the 2010 midterm elections. And also, Democrats have lost a lot of support from seniors over the fight for health care reform. Republicans see an opportunity here with seniors, and Democrats want to make sure they don't lose their support.

BLITZER: Because the seniors are worried that if there are massive cuts in Medicare, that could affect them.

BORGER: That's right. And so, this is one way the administration is trying to say, look, we are thinking of you and we understand that you suffer from higher health care costs.

BLITZER: Republicans, Democrats, Independents, everyone loves the seniors.

BORGER: Everyone loves seniors.

BLITZER: OK. As they should. Thanks, Gloria.


BLITZER: President Obama finally kept his promise and visited New Orleans today, a city still recovering from a massive hurricane. But there was no stop in Mississippi, where Katrina flattened the Gulf Coast. Was his visit too little, too late?

And three young hikers who mistakenly crossed the Iran border from Iraq, and for that they have now been imprisoned for months. Their mothers are now fighting to get them freed.

Our Mary Snow is watching this story.


BLITZER: There's a brand new and very disturbing development involving that runaway balloon that we've been reporting on for some time. The Associated Press is now reporting, quoting a sheriff's official in Colorado, as saying that that little 6-year-old boy climbed into a box, a box that had been attached to the balloon. But the box was not found at the site of the crash when that balloon went down.

Our affiliate in Denver, KUSA, also reporting something very similar, saying authorities are searching for a box that was attached to the bottom of an experimental aircraft that took off from a Fort Collins home with a 6-year-old boy inside on Thursday morning. The homemade aircraft made an apparent soft landing northeast of Denver International Airport on Thursday afternoon, but rescue crews found no sign of the boy when they reached the aircraft.

And also, they found no sign of a box, apparently, that had been attached, according to these reports by The Associated Press and our affiliate KUSA to this little -- this experimental balloon. And obviously right now a massive search is under way for that box.

There had been some suspicion that perhaps the boy never got into that balloon, that the boy was simply hiding out some place in and around the home in Fort Collins, Colorado. Earlier, it was widely feared that the boy was inside that balloon. But once the balloon landed, had a soft landing in the dirt in Colorado not far from the airport, Denver International Airport, no sign of the boy. Only now we're learning that there is the suspicion that a box or some sort of basket had been attached to this balloon. And no sign of the box.

Fredricka Whitfield is watching this story for us as well.

Fred, help us better appreciate what's going on, because this is a significant new and very worrisome development.

WHITFIELD: It really is, because I think people were feeling some comfort once they saw that this aircraft or this balloon made that soft landing. They checked what they thought would be the hatch where this little boy might be. But now, according to these reports, that there is this small box that would be attached to the bottom of that configuration that we're seeing. And that, apparently, when they examined, took a closer look at this balloon, that there are these pegs, pegs that would indicate that there would be this sort of box attached.

The pegs are there, but of course the box is not. We don't know the exact size of this box that would be at the bottom of this balloon. But as you mentioned, this was something that all of us watched unfold for somewhere between two and a half to three hours on the air.

This helium-filled balloon making its way some 80 miles in the Fort Collins, Colorado, area before it finally made that landing. Still unclear where the little boy is, 6 years old.

According to another sibling, seeing him actually go into that balloon and then somehow it then ascending. But we still don't know the whereabouts of the little boy. But the big concern now, according to authorities, is this box that would have been attached to those pegs. They did see the pegs at the bottom of that balloon.

BLITZER: I want you to stand by, Fred, because Chad Myers is also watching this story for us.

Chad, there was a lot of discussion earlier whether or not there was enough helium in this balloon to raise a 50-or-60-pound little 6- year-old boy. Now an additional weight of a basket or a box that may have been attached. Apparently, someone saw the little boy go into that box or basket that's now missing.

MYERS: Well, it was a curious design as I looked at it, Wolf, because I was thinking to myself, really, was there really enough room for the child in there when it came to the ground? And also, what we considered to be a curious response by the people on the ground as they didn't go diving into that balloon makes a lot more sense now.

They realized that there was something that should have been attached to the bottom of the balloon that wasn't there. And this is what was reported where that child was.

I noticed during the flight -- and Wolf, I watched this for two solid hours on a non-delay monitor. I watched this balloon float. And all of a sudden, I thought to myself, wow, this thing is really going high in the sky, and I didn't notice a box or a basket below it at this time.

But all of a sudden, I thought this balloon went 5,000, 6,000 feet in the sky in a big hurry, like weight had been released from it. And then all of a sudden, it slowed down and its descent kind of came down as the helium just kind of released from itself because the seams weren't perfect.

You know, we don't know where this box landed. It may have actually come apart very quickly during the ascent. And that would have been great, if the child was only just a few feet off the ground when this came down. And that would mean that the search area was really small, literally in his subdivision. If that happened later, there could be a not so pleasant end to this, I'm afraid -- Wolf.

BLITZER: I wonder if we could go back and take a look at the video early, early on, over the course of more than two hours, and see if there is something that we can determine was, in fact, attached to this balloon, and see if -- at that one point where you saw the sudden lift, maybe it did fall off. We have all that videotape.

MYERS: And I went back as far as I could at this point in time, all the way to when KUSA first came on the air in really a broken up signal because they were just getting there. And I couldn't see it. I couldn't see the basket.

BLITZER: So, all of the videotape, all of the information, all the pictures that we've seen are consistent. We don't see anything attached to the bottom of that balloon. Is that right?

MYERS: Correct. We did not see that shape of that basket or anything else change from where we started to see this from the very first picture. It looked exactly like we're seeing it now.

BLITZER: All right.

Let me bring in Jeanne Meserve. She's getting some more information as well.

Jeanne, what are you picking up?

JEANNE MESERVE, CNN HOMELAND SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, I just spoke to the Colorado Army National Guard. They tell me that they do have a UH-60 helicopter up in the air now. Shortly, they'll be launching a UH-58.

They are looking for this boy from the air. I'm told by the Army National Guard that the search was concentrated over Weld County in Colorado, but they now are expanding it. It now will expand throughout the whole flight path that this mylar balloon took while it was in the air.

So, we knew already they were looking in the neighborhood in case this boy had not gotten on board the balloon. They are also looking from the air just in case he was on board and he fell out.

BLITZER: And we don't have a whole lot of daylight left. It's, what, approaching 3:00, 3:00 p.m. in Colorado, Rocky Mountain Time? So, there's only a few hours left for them to undertake a significant search.

MESERVE: Well, no. The UH-58, we're told, does have night vision capability. So it will be able to look after dark.

BLITZER: But we're talking about a pretty small little box, though, that would not necessarily be all that easy to determine.

MESERVE: And certainly there would be a lot of other things giving off heat signatures. But it's the best they can do under these circumstances.

BLITZER: So, the search continues for this little 6-year-old boy. His name is Falcon. Only about 3 feet tall, dark hair.

And I want to get some more information on Falcon and his family. Abbi Tatton, our Internet correspondent, is monitoring what's going on.

Abbi, help me.

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Wolf, just to remind viewers, we've been talking about the Heene family in Colorado there. The picture we're showing you here is from ABC from the show "Wife Swap." The Heene family were featured in that show.

Mother, father and then three young boys under the age of 10. Their names, Bradford, Rio and Falcon. Falcon age 6 years old. Of course the search is now on for that young boy -- Wolf.

BLITZER: The Heene family obviously deeply, deeply worried, deeply concerned about their little boy, Falcon. And we're learning a lot more about the family, Abbi, including that the father is passionately involved in astronomy and science and really has submitted iReports to CNN.

TATTON: Plenty of iReports to CNN. We've seen iReports coming in from the family that we don't want to show you right now, but of the family, all together, storm chasing during Hurricane Gustav last year.

This is another one of Richard Heene's videos. He submitted three to us over the last year. This one about his interest in the planet Mars, his theories about the planet Mars.

But other videos we've seen as well is the family all together, all involved together in storm chasing, all in a car, saying in the comments that they said as they submitted the video that, "We enjoy taking the kids with us. They're very much involved. And we feel this is safe."

So, a lot of information that we're finding online and that the Heene family has submitted to us over the last year or two.

BLITZER: Let me update our viewers on what we know right now. And I think the best way for me to do that, Abbi, is to read from the latest dispatch of The Associated Press, dateline, Fort Collins, Colorado.

"A Colorado sheriff's official says a 6-year-old boy climbed into a box that was attached to a homemade balloon, but the box wasn't found when the craft crashed. Cathy Mesick (ph), a Larimer County sheriff spokeswoman, says one of the boy's brothers saw him get into the box or basket which was attached with pegs. She says search teams are scouring the area from the house in the direction that the balloon flew."

"The craft was airborne for more than two hours. It glided through two counties."

"Mesick (ph) says investigators are looking into every possibility, including whether the boy was ever in the balloon. She described the little boy, Falcon, as three feet tall with dark hair, said his parents are 'very traumatized.'"

That's the latest Associated Press dispatch. And we're getting very similar information from our affiliate in Denver. Our affiliate in Denver also, KUSA, is telling us something very similar. Authorities are searching for a box that was attached to the bottom of an experimental aircraft that took off from a Fort Collins home with a 6-year-old boy inside.

The homemade aircraft made an apparent soft landing, as we know, but the mystery continues right now. One possibility, the boy is simply hiding out some place in or around the home. Another possibility, that the boy was in this box, but as this balloon took off, the box fell off. The boy could still be in the box.

They're looking -- as Jeanne Meserve just reported, they're looking for this box. And it's obviously a huge, huge mystery right now.

It's 5:00 p.m. here on the East Coast. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Let me walk over to CNN's Tom Foreman, because we're continuing our coverage.

We thought that maybe it was resolved even though they hadn't found the boy, Tom, because there was no evidence that anything inside that balloon had been lost, or any doors opened, or anything like that.