Balloon Boy – a Timeline of Deception

Where were you when you first heard about the now-infamous “Balloon Boy” incident? On Thursday, October 15th, at a little past 2 p.m. Central Time, Dan and I were IM’ing when he abruptly told me to turn on CNN.

Once I did, the screen was filled with the image of a large silver balloon speeding and spinning, thousands of feet above the Colorado countryside. The balloon supposedly carried a six-year-old boy, appropriately named Falcon.

For the next hour, Dan and I chatted back and forth – with interjections from the Gear Diary Team as we all emailed about the situation. I suspect that similar conversations were going on everywhere as people were watching…

Based on the eyewitness account of one of Falcon’s older brothers, Brad, who told authorities he saw the 6-year-old stow himself in the balloon’s basket just before it broke free from its tether and took off, authorities initially believed the boy was aboard the balloon, and followed the Mylar aircraft approximately 50 miles. – ABC News

2:10:01 PM Judie: 6 years old?
2:10:01 PM Daniel Cohen: Yeah
2:10:05 PM Daniel Cohen: Crap
2:10:16 PM Judie: the thing is speeding by, too
2:10:30 PM Daniel Cohen: Yup
2:10:37 PM Daniel Cohen: Hopefully it holds
2:10:38 PM Judie: they say the balloon can reach 10K feet? yikes!
2:11:07 PM Daniel Cohen: Look how fast
2:11:08 PM Judie: holy crap
2:11:10 PM Judie: yeah
2:11:28 PM Judie: they are saying 7k feet up now, 30 mph
2:11:33 PM Judie: HOLY CRAP
2:11:39 PM Judie: they think the boy may have already fallen out!!!
2:11:45 PM Daniel Cohen: How do you grab the balloon?

2:12 PM Larry Greenberg to gear-diary-team / subject [Team – Gear Diary] Boy floats away in balloon: Have u all seen this?

Bob Licko, 65, a neighbour, said he was leaving home when he heard commotion in the backyard.

He said he saw two boys on the roof with a camera, commenting about their brother.

“One of the boys yelled to me that his brother was way up in the air,” Licko said.

Licko said the boys’ mother seemed distraught, and the boys’ father was running around the house. – Calgary Herald

2:12:05 PM Daniel Cohen: Crap
2:12:10 PM Judie: yeah – one sec
2:12:45 PM Judie: they have not been able to nail down yet if the boy fell out of the unlatched door or not
2:12:51 PM Judie: they say the door open
2:12:53 PM Judie: and it’s spinning
2:12:56 PM Judie: with the door open
2:13:06 PM Daniel Cohen: Such a waste
2:13:10 PM Judie: totally
2:13:32 PM Judie: he may still be in there
2:13:43 PM Judie: gah – it is just moving so quickly
2:13:46 PM Judie: and so high

2:14 PM Travis Ehrlich to gear-diary-team: Just pushed through AP Mobile. I just told my class of Sophomores.

2:14:25 PM Daniel Cohen: I mean do you get above it and hook it?
2:14:49 PM Judie: maybe the helicopter could get above it and push it down?
2:15:18 PM Daniel Cohen: Ooh that would work. With the skids
2:15:27 PM Judie: right
2:15:39 PM Judie: or just the force of the wings?
2:15:43 PM Judie: pushing down?
2:15:47 PM Judie: I don’t know

As filler, while the balloon was floating, and while it was obvious that nothing new was going to happen for a while, a neighbor was interviewed with streaming video of the floating balloon on the side — just in case something developed.

2:16 PM Judie Lipsett to gear-diary-team: watching it now – they don’t know for sure he is in there now – the door is open
2:16 PM Dan Cohen to gear-diary-team: We are watching now. Crazy
2:19 PM Jessica Fritsche to gear-diary-team: Watching now on CNN after AP Mobile pushed it through to me…I hope the little boy didn’t fall out. 🙁

Weld County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Margie Martinez said that the boy’s sibling saw the 6-year-old climb into the balloon, which was tethered in the back yard of his parents’ Fort Collins home. The door to the balloon’s basket was open. The boy, Falcon Heene, went inside and untied the rope, allowing the balloon to go aloft. Martinez said that it was possible that the child had fallen out of the open door. – Associated Content

2:22 PM Dan Cohen to gear-diary-team: How do you get the kid out????
2:23 PM Larry Greenberg to gear-diary-team: when he hits the ground you take him out.
2:23 PM Judie Lipsett to gear-diary-team: the balloon expert on CNN is saying that if there is someone in the balloon, it would be riding differently, and not listing like it is. I hope he is right, but where is the boy??

While the balloon was in the air, the sheriff’s department reached out to a university professor who determined that a balloon of that size could probably handle a payload of about 80 pounds, Alderden said. Falcon weighs about 37 pounds. – Associated Press

2:24 PM Larry Greenberg to gear-diary-team: they were speculating either A. the whole thing is a hoax or B. he already fell out somewhere since the door seems to be open.
2:25 PM Adrian Leibas to gear-diary-team: You must have been reading my mind. We are watching it here at work…where were the damn parents?
2:25 PM Judie Lipsett to gear-diary-team: inside cooking meth and chatting online.
2:26 PM Larry Greenberg to gear-diary-team: I just sprayed diet coke on my desk.
2:26 PM Judie Lipsett to gear-diary-team: hehe
2:28 PM Dan Cohen to gear-diary-team: And I’M bad??
2:32 PM Judie Lipsett to gear-diary-team: honestly, this is straight out of the previews I saw for that UP movie. 😛

[Ed. note – it looks like I wasn’t the only one to see the Up similarity, E! online had a blog about it yesterday. :lol:]

BreakingNews via Twitter – BULLETIN — HOT AIR BALLOON MAKES SOFT LANDING IN BRIGHTON, COLORADO. 2:36 PM Oct 15th from BNO Headquarters

And then the balloon landed; we all waited anxiously, watching waited to see if the boy was or wasn’t inside…

When reached at the family home before the aircraft was recovered on the ground, Richard Heene was crying and said he was not watching television images of the silver “low altitude vehicle” flying over the Colorado plains. He said he was praying and waiting for an update from police.- ABC News

BreakingNews via Twitter – BULLETIN — NO ONE INSIDE HOT AIR BALLOON. 2:39 PM Oct 15th from BNO Headquarters

BreakingNews via Twitter – Police: Investigating whether boy may have fallen out of the balloon before landing.2:44 PM Oct 15th from BNO Headquarters

2:48:27 PM Daniel Cohen: So did he fall out?
2:48:32 PM Judie: dunno
2:48:45 PM Judie: they haven’t found him
2:51:04 PM Daniel Cohen: Poor parents
2:51:46 PM Judie: I know

2:52 PM Adrian Leibas to gear-diary-team: Balloon landed and boy not inside, they think he fell out. How long was he gone and no one noticed
2:54 PM Judie Lipsett to gear-diary-team: if he was ever in it tho – could have been messing with it, it took off, he freaked and ran – thinks he is in trouble…
3:00 PM Carly Z to gear-diary-team: That’s a lot better than if he slid out…

Believing Falcon Heene may have fallen out of the aircraft, investigators searched a miles-wide area looking for him. Volunteers walked through the treeline near the family’s home, calling out the boy’s name. – ABC News

3:15 PM Adrian Leibas to gear-diary-team: I smell a hoax. How long would helium last in that size balloon? And it was just sitting in the backyard? If the parents were looking to sell their little invention they just got a few million $’s in advertising
3:15 PM Judie Lipsett to gear-diary-team: that would truly suck. 😛

And then the news started to filter in: this wasn’t the first time the Heene family had been on TV. In fact, they were veterans of the ABC show “Wife Swap“. Suddenly, things started to look a bit fishier.


The families that have been chosen for the 100th episode swap are the storm-chasing, science-obsessed Heene family from Colorado and the psychic, performing arts-loving Silvers from Florida.

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. In this ultimate swap, the Heenes swap lives with a psychic mom who speaks to the dead and can control the weather, her husband and her children — who believe they are destined to be stars. This show will feature aliens, punk rockers, past-life regression and, for the first time ever, the children from the two families will face off in a kids’ table meeting. “Heene/Silver,” the 100th episode of Wife Swap, destined to become a classic!

Then there was the “Pussification” rap video done by the boys and posted on YouTube that started making the rounds all over the internet.

All of a sudden, this no longer felt like a situation where you had a dad – who the press was starting to paint as a character similar to the one Rick Moranis had played in “Honey I Shrunk the Kids“, whose kid had been caught up in a science experiment gone awry; it was more like here was a family that liked to be on TV, even if it meant doing things that didn’t show them in the best light.

3:27 PM Judie Lipsett to gear-diary-team: ok – now the cynic in me comes out – the family has been on some wife swap reality show, the dad has multiple websites – each of which just got a mention, AND he submits regularly to CNN’s eye-report (or however you spell it). you can’t buy the kind of exposure he just got today. I will feel awful if the kid isn’t safe, but now I am starting to think WTF.

BreakingNews via Twitter BALLOON MYSTERY — The six-year-old Colorado boy was on a box attached to the balloon and was not found at the crash site, police say. 3:54 PM Oct 15th from BNO Headquarters

BreakingNews via Twitter – Sheriff’s spokeswoman: Witnesses reported seeing “something” fall from the balloon, conducting ground search in the area. 3:59 PM Oct 15th from BNO Headquarters

4:01 PM Adrian Leibas to gear-diary-team: Exactly. 2 hours of nonstop coverage…For free!
4:15 PM Jason Reese to gear-diary-team: Wow. I missed quite a bit in meetings today! Just now hearing about this hoax/balloon fiasco.
4:18 PM Judie Lipsett to gear-diary-team: holy crap – now they are saying there was a BASKET attached to the balloon, and obviously it wasn’t on it when they found it, and they have witnesses saying they saw something fall from the balloon. and they still haven’t found the boy. :-///

BreakingNews via Twitter – BALLOON MYSTERY — CNN shows image of a possible object falling from the balloon: 4:34 PM Oct 15th from BNO Headquarters

BreakingNews via Twitter – Authorities launch search at a park southeast of missing boy’s home. Watch live coverage on KUSA-TV: 4:47 PM Oct 15th from BNO Headquarters

BreakingNews via Twitter – Officials now say no box believed to have been attached to balloon. Watch live coverage on KUSA-TV: 4:54 PM Oct 15th from BNO Headquarters

BreakingNews via Twitter – BULLETIN — MISSING BALLOON BOY FOUND SAFELY. 5:06 PM Oct 15th from BNO Headquarters

BreakingNews via Twitter – Colorado police officials say missing balloon boy found safely at home. It is not yet known where he was. 5:10 PM Oct 15th from BNO Headquarters

BreakingNews via Twitter – BALLOON DRAMA — Police officials say the missing six-year-old boy was found hiding inside a box at his home’s garage.5:12 PM Oct 15th from BNO Headquarters

5:13 PM Clinton Fitch to gear-diary-team: They found the kid at home. So… stunt to get press for his saucer balloon thing or a real, genuine panic moment?
5:21 PM Judie Lipsett to gear-diary-team: I think a panic moment…but it will pay off big. I bet the little boy let daddy’s balloon fly accidentally, and he freaked. did what any other kid would do – went and HID! poor little guy. 😉

And sure enough, that was being reported as exactly what had happened. All very believable … right?

Sheriff Jim Alderden was in the midst of telling the media that law enforcement officials were unclear about the boy’s whereabouts when he was alerted that the boy was alive and well at the family’s home.

“He’s OK, he’s been located, he’s at the house,” Alderden said. “Investigators will interview him and find out what occurred.”

“This is not the first time we’ve been searching for a child and the child hides because he’s worried he’s going to get in trouble,” Alderden added. – ABC News

Mayumi Heene said that the family was sitting in their living room, distraught and terrified for missing Falcon, when he walked into the room.

“[It] felt like from nowhere. When I first saw him, I couldn’t even believe it. I couldn’t comprehend right away,” she said, adding that the next moment she was “just jumping, calling his name.” She began to “scream and cry, and I just enjoyed that moment.” – CNN

Now was a perfect time for the Heene’s to shut their door to the press and enjoy some happy family togetherness. But would they? Could they?

As the news was still breaking, Balloon Boy t-shirts started appearing online, Balloon Boy Facebook groups popped up, and someone even created a Balloon Boy game – where you could “Fly to great heights evading all efforts to capture you and maximizing global money and hours wasted.”

And then, curiously enough, the entire Heene family was scheduled to be on Larry King that night. I remember looking at Kevin and asking “WHY?!”

But it turned out to be a good thing that they were…

Wolf Blitzer was filling in for Larry, and he asked if Falcon had heard his parents calling for him. Because Falcon wasn’t wearing an earpiece, Mr. Heene repeated to his son: “Did you hear us calling your name at any time? Why didn’t you come out?” Falcon said, “You guys said that we did this for a show.” It sounds like his dad mumbles, “yeah”, and the mom tentatively says “No?”

Say what?

And all of a sudden, even the most trusting people had reason to doubt. Now it was time for the Heene’s to begin massive damage control.


October 16, 2009

Riding their 15 minutes of fame, the entire Heene family appeared on Good Morning America, where Falcon blew chunks as his parents tried to continue the interview, attempting to explain away the “we did this for a show” comment from the night before. The fact that his parents were more concerned about getting their face time on TV than they were about getting their sick son in bed rankled many.

BreakingNews via Twitter – Officials begin internal meeting over balloon boy story as doubts emerge: 9:39 AM Oct 16th from BNO Headquarters

Excellent! The authorities didn’t buy the story, and they were about to do something!

BreakingNews via Twitter – NEWS ALERT — Colorado sheriff holds news conference on balloon boy: 1:01 PM Oct 16th from BNO Headquarters

Balloon Boy Saga

And then the serious contradictions began to arrive…

The Heenes say that when they couldn’t find Falcon, they called the Federal Aviation Administration, then a local TV station with a news helicopter, and then dialed 911. The sheriff said the TV station call made sense because the helicopter could have provided immediate assistance. In the 911 call, the boy’s mother, Mayumi Heene, told a dispatcher in a panicked voice that her child was in “a flying saucer.” She sobbed and said, “We’ve got to get my son. – Associated Press

Falcon’s father, Richard Heene, told reporters Thursday that one of his other sons videotaped the boy climbing into the balloon’s gondola — but, unknown to the family, the boy exited the balloon before it took off and spent much of the day hiding in an attic. – Calgary Herald

But a home video released Friday shows that the boy, Falcon Heene, was nowhere near the balloon as it floated off — despite claims from the boy’s 10-year-old brother that Falcon was inside the balloon when it broke away. The boy’s father, Richard Heene, is also seen standing next to the balloon as it flew from the family’s backyard. – Fox News

Um. Hold up.

There is no basket (or gondola) on the bottom of the balloon. There were no doors on the bottom of the balloon. There was no way that Falcon could have ever been inside the sealed bottom of that balloon, and the Heene’s had to know that. Why wouldn’t they have just said that from the beginning? Perhaps because that wouldn’t have been as interesting to the viewers at home? Adding to the intrigue…

Fergus said he informed the control tower after the call from 9NEWS, who then notified other state agencies. Although he was not aware of any phone call from Falcon’s father, Fergus said his call may have gone to another facility of the Federal Aviation Administration. He did not know if the control tower was already aware of the incident when he called them. Allen Kenitzer, also a spokesman for the FAA, said the alleged phone call would be part of an investigation that the agency is conducting. Kenitzer refused to give more information on the reason for the investigation because it is still ongoing. “Every time something happens with things that fly we investigate,” he said. A spokeswoman for the Larimer County Sheriff’s Office, when asked about the sheriff’s remarks during the conference, said they had no confirmation that Richard Heene actually made the call to the FAA. “I’m not sure what to say, I guess we took his word for it,” the spokeswoman said.- BNO News

And then it started to get really interesting.

Today, we spoke with a Denver-area student who claims to have worked with Falcon’s father, Richard Heene, on a reality show proposal for ABC. The student claims to have been hired by Heene, and says the two worked together from March until May 2009 to prepare “business plans and proposals” to pitch to ABC. Here’s what the seller says the documents prove: “The show surrounds scientific experiments and controversial pranks, and one of the pranks within it — actually several of the things within this document — talks about very similar information to what is being debated on the air.” The seller adds: “When Mr. Heene is denying having any involvement with this being for a show — when the little kid, Falcon, says ‘Dad, you said to go hide in the attic, we’re doing this for the show’ — and then he’s adamantly denying that, that’s when I started cracking up because I have proof that that’s not true.” – Business Insider

Who would buy the info? What did this guy have? Who was this guy? Inquiring minds wanted to know…

October 17, 2009

Success! After we announced on Friday that we could connect a willing media buyer with a student in Colorado who claimed to have evidence that the balloon boy story was a hoax, Gawker went ahead and purchased it, and has just published the whole account.- Business Insider

Reading 25-year-old Robert Thomas’ account of his time working with Richard Heene was an education in fame-whoring at its best, or should I say worst. Just a few of the choice bits included:

There was something else at work, though. Oddly enough, Richard’s sampling of stardom from being on Wife Swap — twice — gave him a sense of seniority in our scientific conversations. They became less and less about what I had to contribute and more and more about what Richard wanted. And he wanted nothing more than to get another reality TV series. – Gawker

Richard, on the other hand, was often driven by ego and fame. He was all about controversy, hoping to whip up something significant enough to eliminate our reality TV competitors. He wanted episodes that would shock people and maximize his exposure. And he’d been trying for months. On several occasions, he sat down and told me he’d do whatever it took to make it happen — to win. He eventually resorted to extreme measures. – Gawker

And then we delved into the area of UFOs. I was reading a book on witness reports of Roswell at the time, just out of curiousity — I’ve never concluded whether it really took place or was an elaborate hoax. And Richard said, “how much do you want to bet we could facilitate some sort of a media stunt that would be equally profound as Roswell, and we could do so with nothing more than a weather balloon and some controversy?” – Gawker

Secondly, Falcon supposedly hid in that attic in the garage. I’ve spent a lot of time in his garage, which has a drill press and various welding tools. It’s unorganized and chaotic. There’s really not so much an attic as some support beams connected with plywood. Being an adult of average height, I couldn’t get up into the attic if I’d wanted to, so I don’t know how a six-year-old child could have gotten up there. There’s not an easy way to access that overhang. Maybe if I’d lifted that child up into the attic, he might have been able to rest up there, but not comfortably. – Gawker

My doubts and concerns about that story were verified when Falcon’s parents asked him on CNN, “why didn’t you come out?” And Falcon said, “you guys said we did this for the show.” Lights went off in my head. Bells were ringing; whistles were whistling. I said, “Wow, Richard is using his children as pawns to facilitate a global media hoax that’s going to give him enough publicity to temporarily attract A-list celebrity status and hopefully attract a network.” Gawker

Holy. Crap! And the hits just kept coming!

Actor-comedian Perry Caravello said he met Heene back in the early 1990s, when Heene was struggling in Hollywood. Caravello said Heene rented out a room at the Comedy Store, and he and a handful of comedians performed, but that the event was a “total bomb.” The two worked on a couple of construction jobs before Heene approached Caravello about storm chasing. “He wanted to ride a motorcycle into the middle of a tornado. It was stupid, out-of-the-world stuff.” – Associated Press

He and his family appeared on the ABC reality show “Wife Swap,” receiving no more than a few thousand dollars for each show, according to a person familiar with the production. The person requested anonymity because the source was not authorized to speak publicly. In addition, the producer of “Wife Swap” said that it had a show in development with the Heenes but that the deal is now off. The producer did not provide specifics. TLC also said Heene had pitched a reality show to the network months ago, but it passed on the offer. – Associated Press

And finally … finally!

BreakingNews via Twitter – MSNBC: Colorado sheriff says criminal charges will be filed in ‘balloon boy’ case.8:08 PM Oct 17th from BNO Headquarters


October 18, 2009

Today, CBS News quoted Larimer County Sheriff,  Jim Alderden, when he said “These people are actors,” Richard and Mayumi Heene “put on a very good show for us, and we bought it.” No charges have yet been filed, the parents aren’t under arrest, but the sheriff expects to recommend felony charges, including conspiracy and contributing to the delinquency of a minor.

Alderden said interviews with the parents Saturday resulted in enough information to get a warrant to search the house. He said they were looking for computers, e-mails, phone records and financial records. Alderman said the plan was devised two weeks ago to release the “spacecraft,” to create a situation where it appeared that Falcon was on board the craft and in jeopardy, in order to gain notoriety and perhaps further their careers. “We believe that we have evidence at this point to indicate that it was a publicity stunt done with the hopes of marketing themselves, or better marketing themselves, for a reality television show at some point in the future,” he said at a press briefing today. – CBS News

For those, like me, who were wondering why the Sheriff’s Department kept saying there was no reason to believe that the Heene’s had perpetrated a hoax:

The sheriff’s announcement included an admission that authorities misled the media on Friday when they said they still believed it was not a hoax. After Falcon’s remark on CNN Thursday night, “it became very clear to us at that point that they were lying,” Alderden said. The “nonverbal responses” and “verbal cues” from the children at that moment made it clear, Alderden said. – CNN

Investigators are examining the possibility of other conspirators, “including the possibility that even some of the media outlets may have had some knowledge about this,” Alderden said. Documents show that a media outlet has agreed to pay money to the Heenes with regards to the balloon incident, Alderden said. He didn’t name the media outlet, but said it was a show that blurs “the line between entertainment and news.” It wasn’t clear whether the deal was signed before or after the alleged hoax, or whether that media outlet was a possible conspirator. – Yahoo News

TMZ capped it well by saying, “The sheriff also said this about Richard Heene: ‘His education level is only high school … he may be nutty, but he’s not a professor.'”

BreakingNews via Twitter – BALLOON HOAX — Colorado sheriff: Parents met at acting school. “They put on a good show. And we bought it.” about 9 hours ago from BNO Headquarters

Denver attorney David Lane in a statement said he is now representing the couple and has advised them not to discuss the incident publicly.

Lane said the Heenes “are more than willing to voluntarily turn themselves in to face any charges which may be filed against them … to avoid the public spectacle.”

Charges have not been filed, but authorities expect to recommend felony charges, including conspiracy, contributing to the delinquency of a minor and attempting to influence a public servant, Alderden said. They also plan to recommend a charge of filing a false police report, which is a misdemeanor.

He also said it is unlikely that someone convicted of these charges would face jail time. – CNN

The most serious charges are felonies and carry a maximum sentence of six years in prison and a $500,000 fine. Alderden said they would be seeking restitution for the costs, though he didn’t have an estimate.

The cost for just the two military helicopters was about $14,500.

Richard and Mayumi Heene were shopping for snacks at Walmart with their three sons as Alderden told reporters that the whole thing was a hoax.

… “This thing has become so convoluted,” Heene said as tears welled in his eyes. He said his wife was holding together better than he was.- Yahoo News

This entire sorry episode is a perfect example of a “viral scam” in action and the internet and instant news media’s ability to facilitate it. Sure, “there is a sucker born every minute,” but with tech and the speed at which we can receive news today, the scam is shared in a millisecond, with no time for vetting or fact-checking.

In this day and age, it is easier than ever to perpetuate a scam on the public; thankfully with the digital trails that we leave, it is also easier than ever to be caught.

What did “Balloon Boy” teach us? Come on, this should be fun – it’s multiple choice!

A. Don’t believe everything you read or see…

B. Instant news means instant access but no editorial filter to determine what is true and what is not.

C. People can be awesome …  Or people can be worthless sacks of publicity whoring feces.

D. Just because someone says it is true doesn’t mean it is.

E. All of the above

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About the Author

Judie Lipsett Stanford
Judie is the co-owner and Editor-in-Chief of Gear Diary, which she founded in September 2006. She started in 1999 writing software reviews at the now-defunct; from mid-2000 through 2006, she wrote hardware reviews for and co-edited at The Gadgeteer. A recipient of the Sigma Kappa Colby Award for Technology, Judie is best known for her device-agnostic approach, deep-dive reviews, and enjoyment of exploring the latest tech, gadgets, and gear.

2 Comments on "Balloon Boy – a Timeline of Deception"

  1. Balloon Boy ? a Timeline of Deception #gadgets

  2. The fact that the parents had been reported to be on Wife Swap instantly made me suspicious, plus were there a child in the flying ice bag-shaped contraption, the weight of the kid would have caused the balloon to list differently and altered the balloon’s spin (based on the non-helicoter video I saw). That is, the way it spun and hung in general at the early outset suggested that it was empty.

    If the parents want publicity, perhaps they ought to put the them in stocks (the non-Wall Street type) for public humiliation as part of their sentencing.

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