September 27, 2014 / 2:01 AM / 5 years ago

U.S. flight woes linger after Chicago air traffic center fire

(Reuters) - U.S. airports reported hundreds of residual flight cancellations on Saturday, a day after an employee apparently set a Chicago-area air traffic control center on fire and tried to take his own life.

A view of an exterior of the U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Aviation Administration in Aurora, Illinois, September 26, 2014.REUTERS/Jim Young

The incident forced the evacuation of the Federal Aviation Administration control center in Aurora, Illinois, and severely snarled air traffic on Friday, when an estimated 2,100 flights were canceled at major airports across the country.

The impact stretched into Saturday with another 748 flight cancellations nationwide, more than double the number of cancellations for the entire day before the fire, according to tracking website FlightAware.

About 28 percent of the cancellations took place at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, near where the fire was started, FlightAware reported.

O’Hare is the largest hub of United Airlines and a major hub for American Airlines. The airport averaged about 2,700 flights a day in August with a daily average of about 220,000 passengers in the month, according data posted on its website.

Brian Howard, 36, who lives in the nearby suburb of Naperville, was charged in connection with the fire on Friday in U.S. District Court in Chicago with one felony count of destruction of aircraft or aircraft facilities, prosecutors said.

Howard, who has worked at the control center facility near Chicago, for eight years, is suspected to have started the fire in the basement of the facility just at about 5:40 a.m. local time (1040 GMT), according to an affidavit attached to the complaint.

Howard had recently been told he was being transferred to Hawaii, according to the complaint.

Shortly before the fire broke out, a private message was posted to Howard’s Facebook account that said he was “about to take out” the control center and take his own life, the affidavit said. A relative forwarded the message to police.

Arriving at the scene of the fire, which was quickly extinguished but not before causing damage, paramedics followed a trail of blood and encountered Howard shirtless with cut wounds on his arms and saw him slicing at his own throat, the affidavit said.

Howard remains hospitalized and no court date has been set, prosecutors said. He would face up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine if convicted.

The FAA was assessing the damage caused by the blaze, which may be significant, but hoped to restore air traffic to relatively normal levels over the next few days, they said.

Air traffic was being handled by other control centers in the region, including Minneapolis, Indianapolis and Cleveland, according to the latest statement by the FAA.

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