More than 2,000 flights across the country were canceled on Friday and another 700 on Saturday after a contractor set a busy air traffic control center outside of Chicago on fire and tried to take his own life.
Brian Howard, a 36 year old resident of Naperville, IL left his intentions on his Facebook page:
“Take a hard look in the mirror, I have. And this is why I am about to take out ZAU and my life,” Howard posted, using the call letters for the Aurora center, the FBI said. “April, Pop, love you guys and I am sorry. Leaving you with a big mess. Do your best to move on quickly from me please. Feel like I give (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.”
That was posted at 5:36 a.m. Friday, about 30 minutes after Howard entered the center, the FBI said.
At 5:42 a.m., a control center employee called 911 to say the center was on fire.
It was the responding paramedics from the Aurora Fire Department who found Howard, the FBI said.
After sabotaging the center, Howard tried to slit his own throat:
In federal court documents, investigators say they found Howard at the Aurora center Friday morning, not far from a gas can and lighter, burned towels and exposed telecommunications cables and wires that had been set on fire.
A floor panel had been pulled away to reach the wires, officials said.
Paramedics followed a blood trail near the fire and found a knife and a lighter on the floor. Another knife was found on the blood trail — and then a pair of feet were seen sticking out from under a table, authorities said.
It was Howard, they alleged, in the process of slitting his throat with another knife. He also had knife wounds on his arms, authorities said.
A paramedic pulled the knife away from him and set it on the table. Howard told the paramedics to “leave me alone,” the FBI said.
The FBI said the investigation revealed Howard posted to Facebook just before the fire was set:
Since Chicago is a major air hub, the flight disruptions rippled across the country on Friday, bringing some airports to a standstill:
Lines remained long on Saturday at O’Hare, a major hub for the nation’s air network. Many travelers stranded overnight slept on cots provided by the airport.
The Federal Aviation Administration facility in Aurora, about 40 miles west of downtown Chicago, handles planes cruising at high altitudes through the airspace as well as those just beginning to approach or completing a departure from airports in the Chicago area. During the shutdown, its responsibilities have been transferred to centers in Cleveland, Indianapolis, Kansas City and Minneapolis.
The widespread disruption left some aviation analysts, travelers and politicians calling for a smoother backup plan and wondering how one person could be in a position to wreak so much havoc.
“As the busiest airport in the world, Chicago O’Hare International Airport cannot be brought to a screeching halt,” said Republican Sen. Mark Kirk, of Illinois. “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.”
An FAA spokeswoman didn’t immediately have a response, but an agency statement on Friday’s fire emphasized that airspace management was immediately transferred to other facilities.
It’s not like these air traffic control sites are top secret. You can probably find the address in the phone book. Unless you believe terrorists like ISIS are complete idiots, you have to wonder what lessons were drawn from Howard’s sabotage by those who seek to strike America any way they can.
Imagine if the entire facility had been blown up or a better job done of destroying equipment? Then imagine multiple similar targets all attacked at the same time. How long would air travel be disrupted? The 9/11 attacks forced the closure of US airspace for 2 days, with the fallout from the hijackings costing the industry $22 billion in lost revenue. It’s easy to see what would happen if several of these FAA facilities were to go offline at the same time; mass cancellations and chaos.
While we have no idea how secure these facilities were before the fire, you would hope that they will be improved in the aftermath.