CHICAGO (Reuters) – A fire apparently set by an employee at a Chicago-area air traffic control centre led to the cancellation of more than 1,700 flights at the city’s two major airports, snarling air traffic across the United States, officials said.
Flights resumed at O’Hare International Airport, one of the world’s busiest, after a delay of about four hours, but there were bottlenecks across the entire air system that carriers expect to last through the weekend.
There were no indications that the fire was an act of terrorism and the blaze was quickly extinguished, authorities said. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said employees were evacuated from its control center when the fire broke out. One person was treated for smoke inhalation.
Brian Howard, 36, who lives in the Chicago suburb of Naperville, was charged on Friday in US District Court in Chicago with one felony count of destruction of aircraft or aircraft facilities, prosecutors said.
Howard, who has worked at the facility in Aurora, near Chicago, for eight years, was recently told that he was being transferred to Hawaii, according to the complaint.
The suspect is a longtime employee of Harris Corp, which provides equipment and technical support for the FAA facility in Chicago and many others, US government officials said.
The FAA is still assessing the damage, which may be significant, but the agency hopes 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, officials said.
According to an affidavit attached to the complaint, Howard could be seen on video entering the facility just after 5am dragging a black hard-sided suitcase.
About half an hour later a private message was posted to his 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.
A fire was reported at the control center at about 5.42am CDT (1042 GMT) and paramedics entered the basement and followed smoke and a blood trail to an open floor panel that had exposed wires, the affidavit said. A black suitcase and gas can were next to the opening along with what appeared to be burned towels, it said.
Following the blood trail, paramedics found more knives 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 on the charge.
The incident caused major delays at O’Hare and the domestic hub Midway International Airport, affecting flights from almost every state and routes with Europe, Asia and Latin America.
There were 1,755 flights into and out of the two airports that were canceled by 8pm CDT, according to tracking website flightaware.com, leaving thousands of travelers stranded.
“There’s cascading delays because nothing can take off bound for Chicago from anywhere,” said Doug Church, spokesman for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, a union of air traffic controllers. “The impact is national and major.”
At O’Hare, passengers were scrambling to find alternative transportation or bracing for long delays.
“I’m shocked at how calm everyone is. With everything going on in the world, maybe we’re all managing our expectations. It’s a fire in Aurora, it’s not ISIS,” said Cynthia Stemler of the Chicago suburb of Lake Bluff, who was heading to Newark, New Jersey, in a reference to the militant Islamic group at war in Syria and Iraq.
O’Hare is the main hub for 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 passing through in the month, according data posted on its website.
Southwest Airlines Co suspended all flights through the day at Midway and Milwaukee’s General Mitchell International Airport, the airline said in a statement.