Mexico City: It was 1 pm when the control tower at the Mexico City airport got the first word of a bizarre drama that would play out over the next two hours: The pilot of Aeromexico Flight 576 radioed that a man aboard claimed to have a bomb and wanted to talk with President Felipe Calderon.
Jose Flores, a 44-year-old Bolivian preacher who lives in Mexico, had gotten the word from God that he had to warn Mexicans of an impending disaster — an earthquake "like none there has ever been”, he told reporters after being hustled off the plane by police without anyone being injured.
Unsuspecting passengers, including Americans and French tourists travelling from the beach resort of Cancun to Mexico City, sat not fully aware of what was happening as the pilot negotiated with Flores, bringing the plane to a smooth landing and after an hour or so of talking winning an agreement to end the standoff.
The crisis began when Flores told a flight attendant that a juice can he had was a bomb. The flight attendant notified the plane`s captain over the intercom, Public Safety Secretary Genaro Garcia Luna told reporters.
Flores kept the 103 passengers and crew on the tarmac for more than an hour, the plane sitting surrounded by heavily armed police at the end of a runway in an area designed for emergencies. The airport remained open.
Pilot Ricardo Rios told the Televisa television network that Flores requested that the Boeing 737 be flown around Mexico City seven times, but there wasn`t enough fuel to do that. The hijacker also asked that women reporters and Calderon be at the airport to talk to him, Rios said.
"He said he had tried to speak to the President for three months and since there hadn`t been an answer he decided to use these type of threats with an airline," the pilot said.
Eventually, Flores agreed to release women and children. Minutes later, masked police stormed onto the aircraft with guns drawn and soon escorted several handcuffed men away without firing a shot.
Police later said there was only one hijacker, and the other men were briefly detained because the suspect had told a flight attendant he had three accomplices.
Flores told police his three companions were "the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost."
He said he hijacked the plane after a divine revelation. Flores told authorities Wednesday`s date — 9-9-09 — is the satanic number 666 turned upside down.
Speaking to reporters after he was detained, Flores said he took control of the aircraft with "a juice can ... with some little lights I attached”.
"Christ is coming soon," he added, smiling.
His wife, Elizabeth Melgar, told W Radio that Flores "always told me that he was looking for a way to attract the attention of the media ... he always told me that he was waiting for a signal from God to do something."
"Don`t worry if they put me in jail; (it will be) glory to God," she quoted him as saying.
The suspect`s mother, Mary Pereyra de Flores, told PAT television in his native Bolivia that "I knew that my son had this revelation a year ago, I knew he was going to try to talk to the President of Mexico."
She also said she knew that the 9-9-09 date had significance. "There was a revelation for that date ... today there is a promise for the people of God and retribution for everything that the enemy has stolen," she said.
Garcia Luna said Flores is a drug addict who was convicted of armed robbery in Bolivia and has lived in Mexico for 17 years. Flores described himself as a former drug user and a pastor in southern Oaxaca state who had gone to Cancun to preach.
He is also a Christian music singer who in videos posted on YouTube sings of leaving drugs and finding God. "I was in jail, I was a despicable drug addict, but Christ freed me a few years ago," he sings along with recorded music at a crowded stadium.
In other videos, Flores, who goes by the stage name Josmar, is seen playing with nunchakus or shooting at a coin he tosses in the air.
US, French and Mexican citizens were among the passengers, according to a US official in Washington who was briefed on the situation. The official was not authorised to discuss the case and spoke on condition of anonymity.
A US embassy spokesman said at least 14 US citizens were on the plane and were interviewed by Mexican authorities.
Passenger Pamela Cheatham, 48, an insurance industry employee from Colorado Springs, Colorado, is cautious about flying on "fateful" dates, but said she didn`t make the connection with "9-09-09" — the number that obsessed the hijacker — until after the fact.
"When I was doing my flight I was like, `I don`t want to fly on 9/11, but then it didn`t hit me until this was all over," Cheatham said. "I should have evaluated that a little better."
Cheatham said passengers "had no idea anything was wrong until we landed," and the pilot announced the plane would be delayed on the tarmac for a security check.
"When I saw the police with big guns and the SWAT teams on the side of the bus, then my anxiety started to happen," she added. "When they said women and children off, then I knew something had to be on the plane."
Passengers said the hijacker remained in his seat after the landing, negotiating with a cockpit crew member who periodically walked back from the cockpit. Many passengers thought it was the pilot, but Rios said he sent the co-pilot as his intermediary.
"I could see the anxiety on his face; he didn`t panic but I could tell he was anxious," Cheatham said of the co-pilot.
Randy White, 54, a former law enforcement officer from Houston, Texas, said the toughest moment for him and his wife, Susan, 52, was when women passengers were told to leave while the men stayed aboard.
"I heard they were keeping them hostage," said Susan White. "I didn`t know what was going to happen and I didn`t want to be separated, so I said I love you and gave him a kiss," she said.
Passengers said the hijacker — who was seated toward the rear of the plane — did not draw their attention during the flight. Randy White said he had a very serious demeanour, unlike the wildly smiling, disjointed attitude the suspect displayed after he was caught.
Once Mexican officials negotiated the release of women and children, they sent in the police. White said that "it wasn`t a big struggle" when the hijacker was taken into custody.
The most recent hijacking attempt in the Americas occurred April 19, when a man with a handgun tried to commandeer a Canadian jetliner in Jamaica. The standoff ended before takeoff at Montego Bay`s airport when military commandos burst onto the plane and disarmed the man, who was described as "mentally challenged”.