A Naperville man, 36-year-old Brian Howard, has been charged with a felony offense for allegedly starting a fire that took out Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) air traffic control in Chicago on Friday, causing the cancellation of more than 2,000 flights at Midway and O’Hare airports. He faces a possible $250,000 fine and a 20-year-prison sentence. Landings and take-offs were allowed again at a drastically reduced rate by the end of the day, but delays are expected to continue into today according to the FAA, due to “reduced airspace capacity.”
Howard had worked as a contract employee at the Aurora air traffic control facility for eight years. The company maintains and supplies communication systems. He was allegedly disgruntled about an upcoming transfer to Hawaii. He arrived at work at about 5 a.m. Friday carrying a suitcase. Thirty minutes later he posted a Facebook message saying he was about the take out ZAU (the three-letter call sign for the FAA Aurora location) and his life. The message prompted family members to contact police.
Meanwhile an employee contacted authorities about a fire in the facility control center. Fire officials found exposed telecommunication wires, smoke and a bloody trail that led to the basement, where they found Howard on the floor with multiple self-inflicted stab wounds and attempting to cut his own throat, according to the complaint. Several knives and rags were found at the scene, but no explosives. Howard is currently hospitalized but his injuries, including stab wounds and burns, are apparently not life-threatening. Due to his hospitalization no court date has been set.
The fire caused smoke, fire and water damage to the air traffic control facility, but did not spread to the rest of the building. There was no explosion, but 15-30 people were evacuated and one man was treated at the scene for smoke inhalation. It is believed that Howard set the fire using gasoline and rags, then cut all radar feeds and most of the communication lines into the building. The Aurora facility is considered critical to air travel due to its central location. It controls all flights above 5,000 feet traveling over the midwest part of the U.S. According to a FAA statement, they are currently routing flights around the area.
Neighbors described Howard as “a normal, everyday kind of guy,” noting nothing unusual about him. Neighbor Colin McGrath awoke Friday morning to the sound of the police pounding on Howard’s door. McGrath said he could not believe it, questioning whether one ever really knows his neighbors. In addition to stating he was going to take out the air traffic control facility and his own life, the Facebook message Howard left said that he loved his parents and knew he was leaving them with “a big mess,” and encouraged them to distance themselves from him as quickly as possible.
Naperville police searched Howard’s home to make sure there were no other possible explosives or other victims. They found a number of legal documents that they said were laid out in a “staged” manner, apparently to make them easier to find.
In a statement made on Friday, the FAA said that since the fire and evacuation of the facility, the duties of Aurora air traffic control were being managed through Kansas City, Milwaukee, Indianapolis and Cleveland. They said they are working with those facilities to try to minimize further travel disruptions as much as possible.
By Beth A. Balen
Chicago Sun Times