A fire at a Federal Aviation Administration facility in suburban Chicago turned one of the nation’s busiest travel hubs into a travelers’ nightmare Friday morning, forcing airlines to ground or cancel nearly 2,000 flights at O’Hare and Midway international airports.
Flights were grounded at airports as close as Milwaukee and as far away as Dallas. By midday, the blackout over the skies of the upper Midwest began to give way to a trickle of resumed air traffic, the Associated Press reported.
While police ruled out terrorism, they refused to speak about possible motives for setting the blaze.
They said a fire in the basement of the Aurora facility was set by a 36-year-old man who was found by emergency crews that responded around 5:40 a.m. The man was suffering from burns and also had knife wounds on his hands and arms, Tom Ahern, spokesman for the Chicago office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, told the Chicago Tribune.
A man, described as a contract employee, is being treated and questioned about the fire, but police have not released his name or his condition. Investigators believe the man tried to commit suicide, the officials said.
“There is no terrorist act,” Aurora Police Chief Gregory Thomas told reporters.
ABC7 reported, however, that the fire is being investigated as an intentional act. Sources told ABC7 the suspect had intimate knowledge of the building and radar system. He cut every radar feed to FAA air controllers before setting gas-soaked rags on fire near sensitive equipment, sources said, and also damaged the communications system.
The building filled with smoke, and then water to put the fire out damaged the sensitive gear further. There could be days of potential radar outages at the facility, which could result in significant flight delays. The facility controls air traffic for the entire Great Lakes region.
The man suspected of lighting the fire was authorized to be in the building, and may have posted his plans online, sources told ABC7. His family had asked for a well-being check on Friday morning, saying he was having suicidal thoughts, according to the source. He had recently been told he would be transferred with work to Hawaii.
Police were seen confiscating a car around 10:45 a.m. at the FAA facility.
The Aurora facility, which controls air traffic for the Great Lakes region, was evacuated and flight control was transferred to other FAA facilities. That led to the ground stop at O’Hare and at Midway international airports.
One employee, a man about 50 years old, was treated at the scene for smoke inhalation. Fifteen to 30 additional employees were safely evacuated from the center, the FAA said.
“There was no explosion and, like any similar scene, first responders are being cautious as they clear the building and continue to make it safe,” Aurora police said in a statement at 11 a.m. “This apparently is an isolated incident and there are no indications of terrorism at this time.”
Police said the man is a contractor, not an air traffic controller or FAA manager.
The fire apparently caused radio frequencies to fail, forcing air-traffic controllers to shift to back-up equipment before a ground stop was ordered, and all flights in and out of O’Hare and Midway were shut down.
“Airspace management has been transferred to adjacent air traffic facilities,” said FAA spokeswoman Elizabeth Cory.