MEXICO CITY - 2:30. 2:29. 2:28. ...
The assistant pilot, trying to calm the hijacker in the rear cabin of the grounded aircraft, stared at the flashing red display until he couldn't take it anymore. He walked to the front of the plane and took deep breaths for a full minute as he imagined himself being blown up with passengers and crew.
0:03. 0:02. 0:01. What goes through someone's head at a time like this?
"I imagined myself in the middle of an explosion, and I thought that in that moment my life would end," said Carlos Corzo.
But there was only silence.
The "bomb" was just three juice cans filled with sand. The ominous wires went nowhere. The seconds were ticking down on a benign stopwatch.
The three pilots of Aeromexico Flight 576, which was hijacked Wednesday afternoon on its way into Mexico City, spoke about the ordeal to the Associated Press. They described an incoherent Bolivian pastor, Jose Flores, 44, whose Biblical warnings and strange demands sparked an hour-long tarmac standoff that kept the country in suspense until the 103 passengers and seven crew members walked away unharmed.
Mexican investigators struggled Thursday with two questions: How did Flores get his fake bomb through airport security in Cancun, the flight's origin, and was he mentally ill and destined for a psychiatric hospital?
The pilots, meanwhile, were at still at the Mexico City airport more than a day later. They said they had slept all of about two hours and were ready to go home, but for the time being were busy recounting - for investigators, their families, each other - the story of what happened aboard Flight 576.
Pilot Ricardo Rios said the ordeal began about 1 p.m. Wednesday when a flight attendant told him a passenger had a bomb. The man was demanding to speak with him, and wanted the plane - which was approaching Mexico City - to circle seven times. The hijacker also needed to speak with President Felipe Calderon. It was urgent.
Rios said he didn't have enough fuel to circle the city, and instead radioed the control tower that they were being hijacked.
After the plane landed and taxied to a cleared section of the airport, Corzo, at the back of the aircraft, tried to reason with Flores.
There must be another way, Corzo told Flores, looking deep into his eyes. It's not worth it. Flores agreed to release women and children.
But after they were hustled away on the tarmac, Flores turned back to Corzo and popped open his suitcase, just for a moment. And that's when Corzo saw it: Wires, cans, a blue light, a red light, a flashing digital clock. Corzo told Rios about the bomb, and Rios, locked in the cabin, told the rescuers, who were creeping closer and closer to the plane.
Minutes later, after the fake time bomb had counted down to zero, masked police stormed the aircraft with guns drawn and grabbed Flores, along with several others they thought were working with him.
Police later said there was only one hijacker, and the other men were briefly detained because Flores had told a flight attendant he had three accomplices. He later told police his companions were "the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost."
The pilots, who have been congratulated for remaining calm and in control throughout the ordeal, told AP there's nothing they would do differently if it happened again.
And they all hope it doesn't.
Associated Press writer E. Eduardo Castillo contributed to this report.
Pilots recount tense standoff with incoherent hijacker as 'bomb' ticked to zero
MEXICO CITY - 2:30. 2:29. 2:28. ...