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Suspect in Chicago-area air traffic control fire held without bond

In this Monday, Sept. 29, 2014 courtroom sketch, Thirty-six-year-old Brian Howard, right, of Naperville, Ill., and his attorney Ron Safer, second right, appear before federal judge Michael T. Mason, left, along with prosecutor, Andrew Polovin.

AP Photo/Tom Gianni

CHICAGO -- A magistrate judge ordered a suburban Chicago man held without bond Monday on charges he set a fire at an air traffic control center, causing damage that brought the city's two international airports to a halt.

Dressed in hospital scrubs and wearing a large white bandage on his neck, 36-year-old Brian Howard of Naperville appeared before Judge Michael Mason at Chicago's federal courthouse Monday afternoon, hours after he was released from a hospital and arrested by federal officers.

Listening intently with a furrowed brow, Howard told the judge in a clear voice that he understood why he was there.

Defense attorney Ron Safer told reporters after the hearing that Howard made a "tragic mistake" while trying to kill himself and "deeply regrets" the trouble he caused for air travelers Friday. Safer asked the public for compassion and forgiveness. He declined to answer specific questions about what led up to Friday's fire or what was happening in Howard's life.

Prosecutors say Howard started the fire Friday at a regional control center in suburban Aurora before trying to commit suicide by slitting his throat.

The FAA said Howard worked for the Harris Corp., which provides the FAA's communications network for its air traffic centers. The agency has heightened security at all its air traffic facilities in response.

More than 2,000 flights were canceled at O'Hare and Midway international airports, disrupting travel nationwide.

Howard faces up to 20 years in prison and fines if convicted of felony destruction of aircraft or aircraft facilities.

"Friday morning, Brian tried to take his life. That he did so in a way that inconvenienced -- and more -- many, many people is unacceptable, and he deeply regrets that," Safer told reporters, according to CBS Chicago.

"We are confident that the process which we're embarked on now will open the doors to the help that Brian needs," Safer said . "He made a tragic mistake in the course of trying to end his own life. Only someone who is deeply troubled would do that."

Howard was at a suburban Chicago hospital until he was discharged Monday morning for his appearance at the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse. Some of his family members attended the hearing but did not talk with reporters.

Authorities say a message appeared on a Facebook page with Howard's name around the time of Friday's fire.

"Take a hard look in the mirror, I have. And this is why I am about to take out ZAU (the control center) and my life," the Facebook message said, according to an FBI special agent's comments in an affidavit. "April, Pop, luv you guys and I am sorry. Leaving you with a big mess. Do your best to move on quickly from me please. Feel like I give a [expletive] for the first time in a long time again ... but not for too long (haha!) So I'm gonna smoke this blunt and move on, take care everyone."

Meanwhile, the Federal Aviation Agency says it is launching a review of the incident at the Aurora air traffic control center. That center is not expected to be fully operational for another two weeks.