clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Man accused in FAA fire made 'tragic mistake,' lawyer says

Brian Howard

The attorney for a man who tried to kill himself after setting a fire at a Federal Aviation Administration facility in Aurora said Monday that his client made a “tragic mistake” that “inconvenienced many, many people.”

But attorney Ron Safer pleaded for the public to have compassion for the “deeply troubled man” whose actions paralyzed national air traffic.

“On Friday morning, Brian [Howard] tried to take his life. That he did so in a way that inconvenienced . . . many, many people is unacceptable and he deeply regrets that,” Safer said after Howard made his first appearance in U.S. District Court. “He made a tragic mistake in the course of trying to end his own life . . .”

“What I would ask of the public is that they consider people in their own family, friends that they have who might be touched by that kind of trouble, and that they summon the kind of compassion and forgiveness that they would want us to summon for those people,” Safer said.

In the wake of the fire, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta promised a 30-day review of contingency and security procedures at major FAA facilities.

But some Illinois elected officials demanded more.

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and five other Democratic U.S. representatives from Illinois called for a federal inspector general to conduct an independent investigation of the FAA’s emergency and security protocols in the Chicago area.

One of them, U.S. Rep. Michael Quigley, said congressional hearings should be held on how a single person could bring one of the world’s busiest airports “to a grinding halt.”

In a letter, Durbin, Quigley and Reps. Jan Schakowsky, Dan Lipinski, Tammy Duckworth and Bill Foster called for an “immediate review” of Chicago-area FAA facilities by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s inspector general.

On Sunday, Durbin had noted that Howard was able to get into the Aurora facility with a suitcase. A gasoline can, two knives and a lighter were later found at the fire scene.

Three days after air traffic controllers faced one of their most challenging situations since 9/11, O’Hare International and Midway Airport operations were still hobbled by the fire.

As of noon Monday, more than 80 percent of the average Monday traffic for the past two months was flying in and out of O’Hare, and more than 90 percent of Midway’s average traffic was operational, the FAA said in a statement.

While flight delays are expected to continue through the week at Chicago’s two airports, the arson-damaged Aurora radar facility should be fully restored by Oct. 13, federal aviation officials said Sunday.

On Monday, technicians started cable, configuration and installation work at the Aurora fire scene, and equipment was expected to continue to arrive through Tuesday night, the FAA said.

Howard, of Naperville, was charged Friday with destruction of an aircraft facility, though additional charges could be filed. In court Monday, Howard, 36, wore drab surgical clothes. He was shoeless and his throat was bandaged.

Judge Michael Mason ordered that Howard be held without bond. He faces a maximum of 20 years in prison if convicted.

As he was led out in handcuffs, a female family member said, “Brian, we love you.”

Howard was a field technician for the Harris Corp., a company hired to modernize communication systems in FAA centers. Authorities say Howard was despondent over an impending transfer to Hawaii, and in a Facebook post early Friday morning before he set the fire, he apologized to family members. First responders found smoke, exposed telecommunication wires and a bloody trail leading to Howard, who was slitting his throat, authorities said.

Speaking in Washington, D.C., on Monday, Huerta discussed the situation in a speech before the Air Traffic Control Association.

“We always have redundancy built into everything we do. We have contingency plans in place for unexpected incidents,” Huerta said in copies of his remarks distributed by the FAA.

Attorney Ron Safer talks to reporters after a court hearing for his client, Brian Howard, who is accused of starting a fire at an FAA facility in Aurora last week. | Richard A. Chapman/Sun-Times