Man authorities say set fire to FAA Aurora facility is fired

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The man who authorities say set fire to an FAA facility in Aurora, causing flight delays that continued into the weekend, has been fired from his position as a field technician for Harris Corporation, a company spokesman said Saturday.

Brian Howard had worked for the company for eight years, Harris spokesman Jim Burke said.

Harris is a government contractor working to modernize communication systems in FAA centers, which include the west suburban overflight radar facility.

The blaze set inside the air navigation facility on Friday was continuing to cause problems for air travelers Saturday, with nearly 800 flights canceled for the day at Chicago’s airports.

As of 3:50 p.m., airlines had canceled more than 660 flights at O’Hare, and about 120 others were canceled at Midway, according to the city’s Department of Aviation. Southwest Airlines canceled all its flights until 2 p.m. and was running on a “slower schedule” after that, aviation officials said.

Delays at O’Hare were averaging at 60 minutes and 45 minutes at Midway, officials said.

Howard, 36, of Naperville, remained hospitalized after a suicide attempt, according to the FBI.

Howard left a haunting message on Facebook before setting fire to an FAA air traffic control center and trying to take his own life, authorities said.

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“Take a hard look in the mirror, I have. And this is why I am about to take out ZAU and my life,” authorities said Howard wrote on the social media site, using the three-letter call number for the Aurora facility.

In an apparent message to his family he wrote, “love you guys and I am sorry. Leaving you with a big mess. Do your best to move on quickly from me please.”

The Facebook message was disclosed Friday evening in a criminal complaint charging Howard with destruction of aircraft or aircraft facilities, a felony offense.

Howard’s family declined to comment.

Howard was upset about a transfer order to Hawaii, according to the complaint.

About 5 a.m. Friday, Howard arrived at work with a suitcase and 30 minutes later posted the Facebook message, which caused a relative to call police.

Meanwhile, an employee at the Aurora facility called authorities to report a fire in the control center.

Aurora fire officials arrived and found smoke, exposed telecommunication wires and a bloody trail.

They followed the trail and found Howard “actively slicing his throat,” according to the complaint. He also had wounds on his arms.

Howard had worked at the facility for eight years in the basement, according to the complaint.

Because of his injuries, which one official said aren’t life-threatening, Harris remained hospitalized, and no court date has yet been scheduled, according to the FBI.

Crowds of passengers juggle their flight schedules as they wait for flights to start boarding again at the O’Hare United terminal on September 26, 2014. A fire at the data facility stopped all passenger flights out of O’Hare and Midway airports. | Al Podg

Crowds of passengers juggle their flight schedules as they wait for flights to start boarding again at the O’Hare United terminal on September 26, 2014. A fire at the data facility stopped all passenger flights out of O’Hare and Midway airports. | Al Podgorski / Sun-Times Media

File photo by Al Podgorski \ Sun-Times

Investigators cover a vehicle that may belong to the man suspected of setting the fire at the Aurora FAA radar facility. | Sean King / For Sun-Times Media

Investigators cover a vehicle that may belong to the man suspected of setting the fire at the Aurora FAA radar facility. | Sean King / For Sun-Times Media

Gov. Pat Quinn said: “We have to investigate first to find out the nature of the damage. This is obviously a deranged individual who was seeking to do great harm.”

Neighbors in the quiet subdivision in Naperville said there was nothing unusual about Howard, whom they considered a “normal, everyday kind of guy.”

“Honestly, I can’t really believe it,” said Colin McGrath, 27, who woke up early Friday morning to the harsh sounds of police knocking on his neighbor’s door. “It makes me think do you really know your neighbors? What’s really going on? Because to hear what happened is kind of shocking.”

Howard is a 1996 graduate of Highland High School in Highland, Indiana, where he was a soccer player and band member.

Meanwhile in Aurora, the fire caused water damage as well as smoke and fire damage, said Thomas Ahern, a spokesman for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which along with the FBI is one of the investigating agencies.

The fire did not spread to the rest of the building and there was no explosion, officials said.

“This apparently is an isolated incident and thereare no indications of terrorism,” Aurora officials said in a news release.

Between 15 to 30 people were evacuated from the building at 619 Indian Trail Ave., Aurora officials said. A 51-year-old man was treated for smoke inhalation and was released on the scene.

Howard’s actions in Aurora caused more than 2,000 flights to be canceled at Chicago’s airports Friday, causing hundreds of travelers to be stranded at O’Hare and Midway airports.

Stranded fliers wait at Midway Airport Friday morning. | Brian Jackson/Sun-Times

Stranded fliers wait at Midway Airport Friday morning. | Brian Jackson/Sun-Times

At O’Hare, more than 1,550 flights were canceled Friday, according to the city’s Department of Aviation. At Midway International Airport, more than 470 flights were canceled, including all flights from dominant airline Southwest Airlines.

Landings and takeoffs eventually were allowed out of Chicago, but at a reduced rate, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

The Aurora center controls air traffic for flights traveling 5,000 feet or higher over the Midwest. It’s considered a critical facility to air travel all over the country because of its central location.

The FAA currently is managing Chicago traffic through high altitude radar centers in Cleveland, Indianapolis, Kansas City and Minneapolis.

“Those facilities are working with the Chicago Terminal Radar Approach (TRACON) facility in Elgin, Illinois and other surrounding large TRACONs in areas such as South Bend, Ind., Rockford and Moline and Milwaukee to track flights on radar and manage departures and arrivals in Chicago Center airspace. The FAA is re-routing overflights around the airspace,” the FAA said in a statement.

Late Friday, the Department of Aviation pulled out cots, toothbrushes and toothpaste for travelers stuck overnight at the city’s airports. Officials also offered drinks and snacks to inconvenienced travelers.

Delays were expected to continue into Saturday because the “fire has reduced airspace capacity in and around Chicago airport” and continues to affect flights, according to a statement from United Airlines.

Among the travelers affected was a South Side couple who had long been planning to vacation in Las Vegas.

As Jerome Smith, 47, and Felicia Sawyer, 43, stood in line at Midway, Sawyer held a cell phone to each ear. On one ear she was checking to see if they could get refunds for the $220 tickets they had to see a Vegas magic act. On the other, she was trying to reach Southwest to see if they could re-book without standing in the long line.

“We’ve been planning this all year, “ Smith said.

Conei Coleman called himself lucky to retrieve his bag after he gave up on trying to fly to Minneapolis and decided to try again on Saturday. | Francine Knowles/Sun-Times

Conei Coleman called himself lucky to retrieve his bag after he gave up on trying to fly to Minneapolis and decided to try again on Saturday. | Francine Knowles/Sun-Times

Contributing: Rosalind Rossi, Sam Charles, Reema Amin, Francine Knowles, Luke Wilusz, Steve Lord, Art Golab , LeeAnn Shelton, Maudlyne Ihejirika and Michelle L. Quinn.

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