Esteban Felix / Associated Press
Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2014 | 5 p.m.
GARITA PALMERA, El Salvador — A Salvadoran fisherman's account of his survival after more than 13 months and about 6,500 miles in an open boat has proved a double miracle for his mother and father, who lost touch with him eight years ago and thought he was dead.
Jose Salvador Alvarenga's family reacted with joy and tears after two phone calls from their long lost son, who said he was getting medical treatment and food — he later got a shave and a haircut. But he confessed to his mother he didn't really know where he was.
The family provided details that may help explain his almost unbelievable survival after what may have been as many as 14½ months adrift.
His father, Jose Ricardo Orellana, 65, who owns a store and flour mill in the seaside Salvadoran town of Garita Palmera, described a strong, stocky young man who first went to sea at age 14. "The sea was his thing," Orellana said.
Maria Julia Alvarenga, 59, said her son always had unusual strength and resilience.
Recounting the phone calls with her son from the Marshall Islands, she broke into tears. "We hadn't heard from him for eight years, we thought he was dead already. This is a miracle, glory to God."
Jose Salvador Alvarenga's 14-year-old daughter, Fatima, said she didn't remember ever seeing her father, who left El Salvador when she was just over a year old.
"I'm so very happy to know he's alive," said Fatima. "He's alive and I'm going to see him."
Gee Bing, the Marshall Islands' acting secretary of foreign affairs, said he helped relocate Alvarenga from the hospital to a hotel in Majuro, the capital of the Marshall Islands, on Tuesday.
"He requested that we give him some time to rest. I don't think he got enough sleep at the hospital, and he wanted to rest and also get a haircut," Bing said. "When we dropped him off at the hotel, there was someone there to take him to the barber."
Bing said that at the hospital, Alvarenga had a constant stream of journalists and well-wishers wanting to talk to him. They brought him gifts, including blankets, pillows, clothes and fruit. The hotel stepped up security to try to provide him some privacy, Bing added.
The official said medical tests showed Alvarenga was doing well. He was taking vitamins, and Tylenol to ease his joint pain, but was otherwise recovering nicely. He said questions remained about Alvarenga's story but authorities were focusing on repatriating him to El Salvador.
Bing said that he expected it to take one to two weeks for authorities to finalize Alvarenga's repatriation, and that the Marshall Islands government would likely pick up the tab for his stay.
The official said Alvarenga also spoke by phone Tuesday to his brother in Maryland for the first time in years: "He got very emotional."
Alvarenga's parents said he was known in his hometown as "Cirilo," a nickname that coincides with the first name of a man registered as missing with civil defense officials in the southern Mexico state of Chiapas. The civil defense office said a small fishing boat carrying two men, named Cirilo Vargas and Ezequiel Cordoba, disappeared during bad weather on Nov. 17, 2012, and no trace of them or the craft was found during an intense two-week search.
Alvarenga said his fellow fisherman, who he identified only with the first name of Ezequiel, died after about a month at sea and he tossed his body overboard. Alvarenga said he survived on raw fish, birds, bird blood and turtles before washing ashore on the remote Marshall Islands atoll of Ebon, 6,500 miles across the Pacific Ocean from the fishing hamlet of Costa Azul, Mexico, where he set out.
There was no immediate explanation of the discrepancy in dates given by Alvarenga and Mexican authorities or the survivor's different names. Alvarenga said he set sail on Dec. 21, 2012, but fisherman in Costa Azul said an overweight Central American man known as "La Chancha," or "the Pig," had been lost since November 2012. Alvarenga may have used multiple nicknames, and he has seemed fuzzy about details of his voyage.
Jose Manuel Aragon, spokesman for the Chiapas state civil defense office, said two weeks of searches were fruitless and reflected the widespread incredulity at Alvarenga's tale.
"It was probably something that was planned beforehand, something we had no knowledge of," Aragon said. "Our only duty was to carry out search and rescue operations."
Villermino Rodriguez, a young fishing boat owner in Costa Azul known as "Willie," described Alvarenga as a heavy set, quiet man. Alvarenga has said he worked for Willie.
Rodriguez said the two men set out despite warnings that day about heavy rains and high winds. He, too, wondered about the survival story.
"You can imagine a lot of things, but that is something he should explain," Rodriguez said. "There are things that don't match up. I knew him, but I have a lot of doubts."
Central America is a major transshipment route for U.S.-bound drugs, but there is no evidence traffickers would use such a small boat to try to make such a long journey.
Alvarenga did not appear badly sunburned, despite his account of spending such a long time adrift.
"It's hard for me to imagine someone surviving 13 months at sea," U.S. Ambassador Tom Armbruster said in Majuro, capital of the Marshall Islands, after speaking with Alvarenga. "But it's also hard to imagine how someone might arrive on Ebon out of the blue. Certainly this guy has had an ordeal, and has been at sea for some time."
Armbruster said the soft-spoken man complained of joint pain Monday and had a limp, but could walk. He had long hair and a beard, and rather than appearing emaciated he looked puffy in places, including around his ankles, the ambassador said. Otherwise, he added, Alvarenga seemed in reasonable health.
Armbruster, who speaks Spanish, said Alvarenga told him he was working for Willie, catching sharks for 25 pesos ($1.90) a pound, when a storm blew his 23-foot (7-meter) fiberglass boat off course.
"He talked about scooping up little fish that swam alongside the boat and eating them raw," Armbruster said. "He also said he ate birds and drank birds' blood."
Other elements of the story supported Alvarenga's account. Photos from the Marshall Islands published by Britain's Telegraph newspaper showed the boat he purportedly arrived in. It bore the hand-lettered name of a Chiapas fishing cooperative, Camaroneros de la Costa, that Alvarenga said he worked for. The photos also showed an enormous plastic cooler that Alvarenga purportedly used to shelter himself from the sun and sea.
No one answered calls to a phone number listed for the cooperative in Chiapas.
Alvarenga's story mirrors the apparent ordeal of three Mexican fishermen rescued by a trawler near the Marshall Islands after nine months at sea in 2006.
Despite many doubters, fishermen Lucio Rendon, Salvador Ordonez and Jesus Vidana stuck to their story, saying they left Mexico's Pacific port of San Blas on Oct. 28, 2005, and they were rescued Aug. 9, 2006, by a Taiwanese fishing ship 8,000 kilometers (5,000 miles) away.
The trio, who were also on a shark-fishing expedition in an open boat similar in size to Alvarenga's, said they survived by taking shelter from the sun under a blanket, eating raw fish and birds and drinking rain water and their urine.
Associated Press writer Marcos Aleman reported this story in Garita Palmera, El Salvador, and Nick Perry reported from Wellington, New Zealand. AP writers Rod McGuirk in Canberra, Australia, and Mark Stevenson in Mexico City contributed to this report.