'Everyday, normal guy' makes big mess of air traffic control. How did that happen?

An air traffic control employee was easily able to enter a critical facility near Chicago Friday, starting a fire which caused thousands of flights to be cancelled or diverted, before attempting suicide. Critics of the FAA want an investigation.

Paul Beaty/AP
Dennis McCormack of Rockaway, N.J. checks the departure board only to find out that his flight to Newark, N.J. has been canceled at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago Friday,

After a day which saw thousands of air travelers stranded, delayed, or diverted, traffic began to recover Saturday as officials and law enforcement authorities investigated the cause of the foul-up Friday, impacting more than 2,000 flights to and from Chicago’s O’Hare and Midway airports.

Even so, more than 700 flights had been cancelled by Saturday afternoon as passengers looked for other ways to get to their destinations – or gave up in frustration. Many had spent the night sleeping on cots.

The trouble started 40 miles away when a contract employee hauling a rollerboard suitcase entered the basement telecommunications room of a control center in Aurora, Ill.

There, the man authorities identified as Brian Howard set a fire, then attempted suicide using a knife.

Once inside the facility, according to an FBI affidavit, Howard sent a private Facebook message to a relative. It read: “Take a hard look in the mirror, I have…. And this is why I am about to take out ZAU [the three-letter identification for the control center] and my life…. So I’m gonna smoke this blunt and move on, take care everyone.”

He had worked at the facility for eight years, according to the FBI, and he was scheduled for a transfer to Hawaii. Nothing in his background, including four years in the Navy as a machinist mate and no criminal record, pointed toward his alleged behavior early Friday morning.

“He seemed like an everyday, normal kind of guy to me,” neighbor Colin McGrath told CNN affiliate WLS.

The Aurora facility’s automatic sprinkler system caused most of the damage, shutting down traffic control systems handling one of the busiest air travel hubs in the world.

The Federal Aviation Administration brought in a clean-up crew early Saturday to begin drying out water-damaged equipment and to clean and sanitize the area. Technicians are completing a damage assessment and timeline for restoration of services.

Meanwhile, traffic normally handled at that facility is being directed by controllers at other FAA facilities.

“The FAA's Command Center in Warrenton, VA is working closely with the airlines that serve the Chicago-area airports to minimize disruptions for travelers and maximize the number of flights arriving and departing at those airports,” the FAA said in a statement Saturday. “The FAA handled 40 percent of the normal daily traffic at O'Hare yesterday and 30 percent at Midway, and expects to continue to increase the traffic flow at those two airports over the weekend. The FAA is using all the tools at its disposal to safely restore as much service as quickly as possible.”

That’s not enough for critics of the FAA, especially of security at its mission-critical sites.

"Chicago O'Hare International Airport cannot be brought to a screeching halt," US Sen. Mark Kirk, (R) of Illinois, said in a statement. "I want to see not only an immediate review by the FAA of the screening process at the Chicago Air Route Traffic Control Center in Aurora, but also a report within 30 days outlining changes the FAA will make to prevent any one individual from having this type of impact on the heart of the United States economy."

Mr. Howard, who remains hospitalized, has been charged with destruction of aircraft or aircraft facilities, which is a felony.

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