Fire at FAA radar center grounds flights nationwide

By Peter Nickeas

CHICAGO _ A fire deliberately set at an Federal Aviation Administration radar center in Aurora, Ill., grounded more than a thousand planes across the country Friday morning.

The small fire in the basement of the Aurora facility was apparently set by a man who was found with self-inflicted wounds by emergency workers, police said.

The man was burned and had cuts on his hands and arms, said Tom Ahern, spokesman for the Chicago office of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Ahern said the man apparently used gasoline to start the fire. While a motive was still not clear, he said early indications were that he was “possibly a disgruntled employee.”

“Whatever his motivations were is yet to be determined,” Ahern said. “We just don’t know at this point why he may have done this”

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    The man was taken to a hospital, the center was closed and 15 to 30 left the building.

    Police said the man is a contractor, not an air traffic controller or FAA manager.

    “We understand that this is a local issue with a contract employee and nothing else,” said Aurora Police Chief Gregory Thomas. “There is no terrorist act.”

    One employee, a man about 50 years old, was treated for smoke inhalation.

    A controller who was working in the facility said the radio frequencies went dead, apparently due to the fire, and that the air traffic control system was immediately shifted to backup equipment. The controller said air traffic operations continued for a short time using the backup system until an evacuation order was issued.

    “The (radio) frequency failed,” the controller said. “Depending on how bad the fire was, it could be a real mess getting things back to normal.”

    An order was issued halting all flights in and out of Chicago’s O’Hare and Midway airports. By late morning, more than 1,100 flights were canceled at the airports and about 600 were delayed.

    Flights already in the air were handed off to other air traffic control centers. “Airspace management has been transferred to adjacent air traffic facilities,” said FAA spokeswoman Elizabeth Cory.

    Across the country, the FAA said no planes destined to cross the Midwest would be allowed to take off until at least 11 a.m.

    The Aurora radar facility, called Chicago Center, is an en route air-traffic facility that handles high-altitude traffic across parts of the Midwest.

    Controllers at the center direct planes through the airspace and either hand off the air traffic to other similar facilities handling high-altitude traffic in the U.S., or direct the planes to terminal radar facilities, which in turn direct planes to and from airport towers.

    Several hundred people waited hours in lines to check in or reschedule their flights at O’Hare while airline employees passed out water to accommodate travelers.

    Air National Guard members Jeff Boyden and Rob Combs, who were in Chicago for training, were to return to Omaha, Neb., Friday morning but learned on their way from their hotel that they might have trouble getting there.

    “I was in the lobby at about 6:30 a.m. when I first heard about the fire and some flights were cancelled,” Boyden said. “When we got there and checked in, our flight was still on time, then everything went red: cancelled, cancelled, cancelled.”

    The two were uncertain about their chances of making a flight Friday, so they decided to hitch a ride with friends who were driving back to Omaha from Chicago instead.

    “We were on standby for one and that got canceled and there was another at 7:45 p.m., but we said ‘No, let’s just get a ride home.'”

    Elena Doyle, 44, of Oak Park, Ill. was expecting to leave O’Hare with her husband and two children on her way to San Francisco for a relative’s wedding Saturday morning. Instead, she was in line with hundreds of people, hoping to reschedule after their morning flight was canceled.

    “I’m going to be really disappointed if we missed the wedding tomorrow,” Doyle said “My thought is we’ll try to get away from Chicago and then we’ll try to hook back to San Francisco.”

    Doyle, however, said she understood the airports’ concern after the incident at the Aurora traffic control station.


    (Jason Meisner contributed to this report)


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