The man in the red shirt sat down for an interview, finally, and we know his name. Mike Byers. A man doing a difficult job, not chasing fame.
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From the Denver Post, October 22, 2009:
Cop who chased balloon says he’s not angry
By Tina Griego
Denver Post Columnist
“I understand you’ve been trying to reach me,” the caller says.
He gives his name, too fast for me to catch.
“I work with the Larimer County Sheriff’s Office,” he says.
There’s only one person I’ve been trying to reach at the Larimer County Sheriff’s Office.
The man in the red shirt, the first man to reach the homemade helium balloon so many of us believed was carrying a 6-year-old boy. We know now, of course, that it was not. We know now about Richard and Mayumi Heene and their alleged publicity stunt to win a reality-television show. We know more about the couple and their version of reality than we ever wanted to know.
Saturation point reached. Passed.
The man in the field remained a mystery. After I wrote about him Tuesday, about the ideals of parenthood he represented in his desperate dash toward the balloon, calls and e-mails came pouring in. Many people shared his heart that day. They ran with him across the farmer’s field. They sat before the television sets and urged him forward. They wanted to know who he was.
He wasn’t hard to find, but I didn’t expect him to call back. He’s a private person, his colleagues told me. He tells me he didn’t read what I wrote about him. He doesn’t read the paper. He takes a deep breath.
“What’d you want to know?” he asks.
He thought the boy was inside. The whole time he was following the balloon, after it landed, once he reached it, he believed that to be true. Cops say their work is 98 percent boredom and 2 percent terror, he tells me. In those first hours when the boy was thought to be in the balloon, he was in 2 percent territory.
“When an incident involves kids, there’s an extra urgency,” he says. “A lot of us have kids, and there’s a separate place in our hearts for them. They’re the most vulnerable among us, and we do what we have to do to protect them.”
He’d been in Fort Collins when the radio call came in. Dispatch reported wind direction, and he headed southeast, along highways and then dirt roads, listening to the police radio, leaning over his steering wheel, scanning the sky.
When he saw the balloon, his first thought was how to stay with it and not drive into an irrigation ditch or through a farmer’s fence. He had to backtrack a few times. He watched once as it started to descend only to be caught in a thermal and pushed skyward again.
Then he was in a farmer’s field, standing next to his SUV, watching it drift toward the ground again.
“I stood there a couple seconds,” he says. “I was worried it might get caught in another thermal.”
He waited until it was about 200 feet from the ground. Then he started running.
“I just didn’t want that balloon to get back off the ground without knowing,” he says. The tethers were taped to the side of the balloon, and the first one came off as soon as he grabbed it. What they didn’t know, he says, was how to approach the box. Richard Heene had claimed a million volts of electricity powered the craft.
“Here’s this Dr. Wizard guy, and we don’t know if he’s accurate, if it’s safe,” he says. “We didn’t want to create any more victims. When we finally got it pinned to the ground, there was a small door and we popped it open and there’s nothing in there. I’ve got this pit burning in my stomach. That balloon hadn’t stopped for 50 miles. It’d been six, seven, maybe 8,000 feet high. So, where did he go?”
You want to know whether he’s angry now.
I spent about 40 minutes with him in the sheriff’s offices Wednesday. He was cordial for a man who was clearly uncomfortable being interviewed. His bosses and colleagues “hounded” him into it, he says, sheepish. “I just don’t look for publicity,” he says. He sees himself as an investigator who was in the right place at the right time to do his job.
But symbols do not create themselves; they are vessels into which we pour our own emotions, which we invest with our own meaning. In a snapshot, he comes to represent duty and compassion; the Hee nes, selfishness and greed.
No, he says, he’s not angry. He’s been a cop long enough to see a lot of stupid people do a lot of stupid things. “You get irritated because there are people out there who will go so far for attention and they don’t think about the consequences,” he says.
People know Heene’s name, I tell him. They should know yours.
The man in the red shirt is Mike Byers, and he tells me this: He is the father of two boys, ages 16 and 11. In the past six months, he has handled two child-suicide cases. “What do you say to a parent who asks you why their 15-year-old shot himself?”
By which the investigator means this: It’s all a matter of perspective, what matters and what, in the end, does not.
Tina Griego writes Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Reach her at 303-954-2699 or firstname.lastname@example.org.