Man Accused of Setting Fire That Halted Chicago Air Travel "Deeply Regrets" Actions: Attorney - NBC4 Washington
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Man Accused of Setting Fire That Halted Chicago Air Travel "Deeply Regrets" Actions: Attorney

Brian Howard, 36, was charged with one felony count of destruction of aircraft or aircraft facilities

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    FAA Fire Suspect Appears in Court

    9/29/2014: A Naperville man appeared in federal court Monday afternoon on charges he set fire to an air traffic control center, causing ground stops at Chicago's O'Hare and Midway international airports last week. NBC 5's Phil Rogers reports. (Published Monday, Sept. 29, 2014)

    As engineers and controllers work to repair Aurora's fire ravaged air traffic control center, the man accused of setting that fire was ordered held in federal custody, his own lawyer arguing that's the one place he may get the help he needs.

    "He made a tragic mistake in the course of trying to end his own life," said Ron Safer, the attorney representing suspect Brian Howard. "Only someone who is deeply troubled would do that."

    The fire triggering widespread cancellations and delays at Chicago's O'Hare and Midway international airports, affecting travelers throughout the country.

    Howard said nothing officially in court Monday -- save for giving the judge his name and birthdate -- but he did acknowkledge six family members sitting in the front row when he was walked in.

    "I'm sorry," Howard said. They tearfully responded, "Don't apologize. We love you."

    Prosecutor Andrew Polovin asked that Howard be detained because he "imposes a danger to the community." Howard's attorney, Ron Safer, countered that he doesn't impose a danger to the community, but to himself.

    "What I would ask of the public is that they consider people in their own family, friends, touched by that kind of trouble," Safer said, "and that they summon the kind of compassion and forgiveness that they would want us to summon for those people."

    Howard was cuffed and taken to the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Chicago, where he will be held. No future court date was set.

    As he was cuffed, his family shouted out in court that they loved him and started crying.

    FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said Monday it will likely be at least two weeks before the Aurora facility, known as Chicago Center, is back on line.

    "Visualize 29 racks of computer equipment," Huerta said. That's what this system entails. Twenty of those need to be replaced."

    Huerta ordered a top to bottom review of air traffic control systems and security in ATC facilities across the country. And he said added security personnel are already in place.

    "It's additional people, it's additional patrols, it's additional restrictions on access for core pieces of the infrastructure," he said.

    Howard, a contractor who had daily access to the Aurora facility, is accused of pouring gasoline in critical areas of the building's basement and setting equipment ablaze, before trying to slash his own throat.

    "Cut all of the cables, cut all of the automation," said former Chicago controller Bob Richards. "Everything that links that control center to the rest of the world of aviation. He was instrumental in taking it completely out!"

    The president of the air controllers' union, Paul Rinaldi, suggested it was almost impossible to exaggerate the damage Howard had done.

    "This is the biggest challenge we have faced in the national airspace system since the tragedy of 9/11," Rinaldi said. "We're going back to manually inputting routes, and you have a very large chunk of airspace that is not being controlled by anybody, and we're re-routing airplanes around this airspace."

    Insiders have been warning for decades that the air traffic control system was vulnerable to just such an attack. Sixteen years ago, the Government Accountability Office expressed concerns about the possibility of both online and physical sabotage.

    "Contract employees were given unrestricted access to sensitive areas without appropriate background investigations," that report noted. Two years later, the GAO sounded the alarm again.

    "The FAA does not know how vulnerable the majority of its operational Air Traffic Control systems are," the 2000 report warned, "and cannot adequately protect them."

    In 2011, the FAA's own Inspector General expressed shock that outsiders were allowed almost unfettered access to FAA computers.

    "The sensitive information may provide a rogue employee or contractor sufficient understanding to identify and exploit weaknesses in the air traffic security structure," that report said.

    "It's a simple case of somebody's who's already within the system who's just gone rogue," said Richards, the former O'Hare controller. He advocates a "missile silo" mentality, with a minimum of two workers required in any sensitive area.

    In the meantime, the FAA said it was learning to work around the damaged Aurora center. While transcontinental flights were routed around Chicago's airspace, the Elgin approach control facility picked up responsibility for flights up to 17 thousand feet, as did companion centers in 18 other cities. Controllers from the fire-damaged Chicago Center were dispatched to other FAA facilities to help with the added loads.

    On Monday, the FAA insisted that conditions at Chicago airports were improving. In a statement, the agency said that as of noon, more than 80 percent of O'Hare's normal traffic was arriving and departing, along with 90% of the normal capacity at Midway.

    "The Department of Transportation and the FAA appreciate the patience of the traveling public," the agency said in a statement.