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More Chicago Flights Canceled; Suspect Was Told Of Hawaii Transfer

Travelers lined up Friday to reschedule flights at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport after the region's air traffic control was sabotaged. More flights are resuming Saturday, but hundreds were also canceled.
Scott Olson
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Travelers lined up Friday to reschedule flights at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport after the region's air traffic control was sabotaged. More flights are resuming Saturday, but hundreds were also canceled.

The number of canceled flights in and out of Chicago crept toward 800 Saturday afternoon, as workers tried to restore one of the nation's busiest air traffic control systems. The system was crippled Friday, officials say, after a disgruntled employee set a fire in a federal radar center. (We updated the number of cancellations at 5 p.m. ET).

As we reported Friday, nearly 2,000 flights were canceled or delayed at Chicago's O'Hare and Midway airports, throwing travelers' plans into chaos and disrupting flights that use the area as a hub. Today, flight-tracking websites show a few steady streams of air traffic in and out of Chicago — but the volume doesn't approach the area's normal swarm of activity.

Officials say the disruption was caused by a fire that forced the evacuation of a nearby federal air traffic control center and the declaration of a rare "ATC Zero" status — "shorthand for the inability to safely provide air traffic control," reports Air Transport World.

New details emerged late Friday about the suspect in the case, Brian Howard, 36, after the FBI filed a preliminary criminal complaint in federal court. It accuses Howard of sending a note to a relative Friday morning in which he bid them farewell and said he was taking down the Chicago Air Route Traffic Control Center in Aurora, Ill.

Howard was a contract employee who had worked at the control center for some eight years, according to the document. It also states that he had recently been informed that he was being transferred to Hawaii.

The affidavit says Howard entered the control center shortly after 5 a.m. Friday, pulling a hard-sided rolling suitcase behind him. Thirty minutes later, he sent a note via Facebook that caused a relative to report its contents to the police.

The affidavit, posted online by The Chicago Tribune, quotes the message:

"Take a hard look in the mirror, I have. And this is why I am about to take out ZAU [the center's radio call sign] and my life. April, Pop, love you guys and I am sorry. Leaving you with this big mess. Do your best to move on quickly from me please. Feel like I give a [expletive] for the first time in a long time again ... but not for too long (haha!) So I'm gonna smoke this blunt and move on, take care everyone."

Roughly six minutes after that note was sent, an employee at the control center called 911 to report a fire. Paramedics who arrived shortly afterwards say they saw smoke and found a panel that had been removed to expose cables and wires. They also saw a gasoline can, towels and a suitcase.

Seeing a trail of blood on the ground, the emergency crew followed it and found Howard, shirtless, under a table. He "was in the process of actively slicing his throat," the FBI filing says, citing a paramedic. The team began to treat Howard, who told them to "leave me alone."

Last night, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn said the suspect was "obviously a deranged individual who was seeking to do great harm. And we want to protect everyone from any kind of wrongdoing like that."

From the AP comes this news about Howard's security status as a contract worker:

"The FAA says its employee background checks include those contract workers like Howard who have access to FAA facilities, information or equipment. Contract employees, like other staff at the Aurora facility, also must have their identification inspected by a perimeter guard and must swipe their cards to gain access to the building, the FAA said."

According to local ABC 7 TV News, Southwest Airlines, which canceled hundreds of Chicago flights Friday, says normal operations aren't likely to resume today.

"Yesterday we were very optimistic that we would be able to operate close to a full schedule today," an airline spokesperson said. "Coming in this morning, doesn't look like that's going to happen, sounds like the airspace restrictions will continue throughout the day, so we're going to work hard to be able to serve as much we can."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.