Chicago — A contract employee suspected of setting a fire at a suburban Chicago air traffic control center brought two of the nation's busiest airports to a halt Friday, sending delays and cancellations rippling through the air-travel network from coast to coast.

The worker was found with multiple self-inflicted knife wounds and burns, and authorities quickly ruled out any ties to terrorism. But the ground stoppage at O'Hare and Midway airports immediately raised questions about whether the Federal Aviation Administration has adequate backup plans to keep planes moving when a single facility has to shut down.

By late afternoon, nearly 1,800 flights in and out of Chicago alone had been canceled. A few flights began taking off and landing again around midday, after a nearly five-hour gap. The planes were moving at a much-reduced pace, officials said, and no one could be sure when full service would resume.

Investigators had no immediate information on a possible motive.

The early morning fire forced the evacuation of the control center in Aurora, about 40 miles west of downtown Chicago. It was the second unexpected shutdown of a Chicago-area air-traffic facility since May.

Emergency crews found the man suspected of setting the fire in the basement, where the blaze began, with the knife wounds and burns to his body. It was unclear whether he was intending to commit suicide, said Thomas Ahern, a spokesman for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which was taking part in the investigation.

The 36-year-old FAA contractor, who was authorized to be at the site, was taken to a hospital and was expected to survive.

"We don't know what his state of mind was at the time," Ahern said.

The man used gasoline as an accelerant, and there was fire damage to some wiring in the building, as well as water damage from the sprinkler system, Ahern said.

Authorities were preparing to search the suspect's home in nearby Naperville.

When the center was evacuated, management of the region's airspace was transferred to other facilities, FAA spokeswoman Elizabeth Cory said.

But hours after the ordeal began, the region's air traffic was still a mess.

A control center in Indianapolis called in staff on overtime to patch together inbound and outbound routes for the Chicago area, said Douglas Church, a spokesman for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association labor union. But the process was slow and painstaking because there was no way for other Chicago-area controllers to send flight plans to computers in Indianapolis.

That led some observers to call for better backup plans.

"This is a nightmare scenario when we thought systems were in place to prevent it," said aviation analyst Joseph Schwieterman of DePaul University in Chicago.

Passengers already in the air headed for Chicago wound up elsewhere. Flight-tracking services showed some Chicago-bound American flights doing loops over Michigan before diverting to Detroit.


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