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CHICAGO (AP) — A Federal Aviation Administration contractor who admitted setting a fire at a Chicago-area radar facility that disrupted flights nationwide was sentenced Friday to 12 1/2 years in prison after hours of testimony, including by a man who said his sister died before he could reach her deathbed after his flight was canceled because of the incident.
Brian Howard pleaded guilty in May to willfully destroying an air navigation facility and using fire to commit a felony. U.S. District Judge Gary Feinerman sentenced Howard, 37, of Naperville, after a lengthy hearing that included testimony from those impacted by the fire at the Chicago En Route Center in suburban Aurora.
Dan Palmer testified he was forced to drive to Texas to visit his dying sister because his flight was canceled. Palmer sobbed when he said his sister died before he reached her Dallas home.
"I want Mr. Howard to know how his actions affected many people in many ways that he cannot even imagine," said Palmer, who lives in the Chicago suburb of Bartlett.
Howard read a statement apologizing for his actions, which caused $100 million in damage, saying he was in a fog of depression at the time.
"I lost myself and I snapped. I decided to take my own life," he said. "I did not act out of anger. I acted out of despair. I cannot explain why I did it."
According to court filings, Howard walked into the radar facility where he worked as a telecommunications contractor before dawn on Sept. 26, carrying a gas can, a lighter and knives; he cut cables and set fire to a telecommunications room before trying to slit his throat. The disruption forced an hourslong shutdown of Chicago's O'Hare and Midway international airports, and the center itself didn't reopen for two weeks. Thousands of flights were canceled.
Prosecutors asked Feinerman to sentence Howard to 13 years in prison. Defense attorney Ronald Safer asked the judge in an August filing to sentence Howard to no more than the mandatory minimum of 10 years. He noted Howard was suicidal and was lashing out at his employer but never intended to put anyone in danger.