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Air traffic center fire grounds flights in Chicago, snarls traffic across nation

CHICAGO - An intentionally set fire at a Chicago-area air traffic control center led to the cancellation of more than 1,000 flights at the city's two major airports, snarling air traffic across the nation on Friday.

Chicago O'Hare
Passengers wait in line to re-book cancelled flights at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago on Friday. A fire at an air traffic control center outside Chicago on Friday led to the cancellation of all flights at the city's O'Hare International Airport, one of the world's busiest, and domestic hub Midway, snarling air traffic nationwide ahead of weekend travel. Reuters /Jim Young

CHICAGO - An intentionally set fire at a Chicago-area air traffic control center led to the cancellation of more than 1,000 flights at the city's two major airports, snarling air traffic across the nation on Friday.

The blaze at the facility in Aurora, outside of Chicago, apparently was set by a man who suffered self-inflicted wounds, Aurora police said. There were no indications that it was an act of terrorism and the blaze was extinguished, it said.

The fire caused major delays for fliers at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, one of the world's busiest, and domestic hub Midway International Airport.

Tom Ahern of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms told broadcaster WGN the fire was set with gasoline by the individual who had self-inflicted wounds on his wrists and arms.

The reason for the fire has yet to be determined, Ahern said.

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More than 1,220 flights into and out of the two airports were canceled by 10:40 a.m., according to tracking website flightaware.com, stranding thousands of passengers.

"There's cascading delays because nothing can take off bound for Chicago from anywhere," said Doug Church, spokesman for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, a union of air traffic controllers. "The impact is national and major."

The Federal Aviation Administration said at about 11 a.m. that some flights had resumed.

At O'Hare, passengers were scrambling to find alternative transportation or bracing for long delays.

"I'm shocked at how calm everyone is. With everything going on in the world, maybe we're all managing our expectations. It's a fire in Aurora, it's not ISIS," Cynthia Stemler of the Chicago suburb of Lake Bluff, who was heading to Newark, New Jersey, said, referring to militant Islamic group at war in Syria and Iraq.

O'Hare is the main hub for United Airlines and a major hub for American Airlines. From January to August, more than 580,000 flights departed or landed at O'Hare, the city of Chicago said, citing Federal Aviation Administration data.

"We anticipate a significant number of cancellations and delays throughout the day," United said in a statement.

Southwest Airlines Co suspended all flights until noon at Midway and Milwaukee's General Mitchell International Airport, the airline said in a statement. It was not clear what other airlines planned to do.

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The FAA said employees were evacuated from its control center in Aurora when the fire broke out, reportedly at about 6 a.m.

"This has resulted in a ground stop for flights in the area and heading to Chicago," the FAA said in a statement.

Airspace management was transferred to adjacent air traffic facilities, it said.

Crews responding to the fire found the wounded man in the facility's basement. He was then transported to a hospital, the Aurora Police Department said. One other person was treated for smoke inhalation.

The three-story facility is ringed by a barbed-wire fence and guarded by uniformed officers.

On May 13, about 700 flights were canceled at O'Hare and Midway airports after a faulty motor in the heating and cooling system at a flight control center in Elgin, Illinois, a Chicago suburb, caused smoke to circulate and forced staff to clear out of the building.

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