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Chicago-area air traffic worker’s alleged sabotage still disrupting flights

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(CNN) — The effects of an employee’s attempted suicide and alleged sabotage of the Illinois air traffic control center where he worked stretched into a second day.

Airlines canceled more than 600 flights scheduled to either take off or land at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport Saturday morning, and about two dozen more at the city’s Midway Airport, according to the Chicago Department of Aviation.

Passengers are also warned to expect delays throughout the day.

The disruption stems from a Friday morning fire at the FAA Chicago En Route Center in nearby Aurora, a critical air traffic control center.

Police say that blaze was set intentionally by Brian Howard, a contract employee at the facility, before he apparently attempted to kill himself.

An FBI affidavit says that a first responder saw some feet sticking out from under a table and found a shirtless Howard “in the process of actively slicing his throat with another knife.”

He told paramedics to “leave me alone,” the affidavit said.

Howard, 36, survived and was taken to an area hospital. His condition was not available Saturday.

He’s charged with one count of destruction of aircraft or aircraft facilities, a felony that could land him a 20-year prison sentence.

Ominous Facebook message

According to the FBI, Howard sent a private Facebook message to a relative just before the fire.

“Take a hard look in the mirror, I have,” the message said, according to the affidavit. “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.”

Then, at 5:40 a.m., Howard — who worked in “telecommunications matters,” according to the FBI — apparently started the fire in the control center’s basement, causing the facility that controls flights in several Midwest states to evacuate and shut down.

The effects were immediate.

O’Hare — the second-busiest airport on the planet according to Airports Council International — is a main hub for United Airlines and other major carriers, with flights headed to international destinations. When controllers stop flights scheduled to there, it has the potential to trigger a line of falling air-traffic dominoes that will ruin travel plans for countless would-be passengers.

By Friday evening, more than 2,000 flights had been canceled in and out of Chicago’s two airports.

The ripple effect caused disruptions at airports across the nation. Southwest Airlines suspended all fights Friday not only in Chicago, but at Milwaukee’s General Mitchell International Airport as well. Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport had 70 cancellations and there were 56 at New York’s LaGuardia Airport.

When the two Chicago airports shut down, air traffic controllers at other airports helped manage traffic to and from Chicago. Doug Church, a spokesman for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association union, said controllers at FAA centers in other cities throughout the Midwest pitched in.

Faced transfer to Hawaii

Howard had worked eight years in the center but faced a transfer to Hawaii, the FBI says in an affidavit. The documents don’t specify his job title but said he worked in “telecommunications matters.”

CNN affiliate WLS reported that Howard was a machinist mate in the Navy from 1996 to 2000 with nothing unusual about his military record. He had a few traffic citations in 2007, but nothing serious, WLS said.

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

No court date has been set.

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