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Friday 29 August 2014

Survivor's family thought he died

Published 05/02/2014 | 04:02

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Maria Alvarenga, the mother of Jose Salvador Alvarenga, is comforted by a relative at her home in El Salvador (AP)
A photo of Jose Salvador Alvarenga when he was in his late twenties (AP)

A 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.

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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.

But he confessed to his mother he did not really know where he was.

The family provided details that may help explain his almost unbelievable survival after what may have been more than 14 months adrift.

His father, Jose Ricardo Orellana, 65, who owns a shop and flour mill in the seaside El Salvador town of Garita Palmera, described a strong, stocky young man who first went to sea at age 14.

"The sea was his thing," he said.

Maria Julia Alvarenga, 59, said her son always had unusual strength and resilience.

Recounting the phone calls from 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 did not 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 Mr Alvarenga from the hospital to a hotel in Majuro, the capital of the Marshall Islands, yesterday.

"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," Mr Bing said.

"When we dropped him off at the hotel, there was someone there to take him to the barber."

He said that at the hospital, Mr 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 official said medical tests showed Mr 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 Mr Alvarenga's story but the authorities were focusing on repatriating him to El Salvador.

Mr Bing said that he expected it to take up to two weeks to finalise Mr Alvarenga's repatriation, and that the Marshall Islands government would probably pick up the tab for his stay.

Mr 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 defence officials in the southern Mexico state of Chiapas.

The civil defence office said a small fishing boat carrying two men, named Cirilo Vargas and Ezequiel Cordoba, disappeared during bad weather on November 17, 2012, and no trace of them or the craft was found during an intense two-week search.

Mr 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.

Mr 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.

Mr Alvarenga said he set sail on December 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.

Jose Manuel Aragon, spokesman for the Chiapas state civil defence office, said two weeks of searches were fruitless and reflected the widespread incredulity at Mr Alvarenga's tale.

"It was probably something that was planned beforehand, something we had no knowledge of," Mr 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 Mr Alvarenga as a heavy set, quiet man. Mr Alvarenga has said he worked for Willie.

Mr 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," he said.

"There are things that don't match up. I knew him, but I have a lot of doubts."

Central America is a major shipment route for US-bound drugs, but there is no evidence traffickers would use such a small boat to try to make such a long journey.

Mr 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," US ambassador Tom Armbruster said in Majuro, capital of the Marshall Islands, after speaking to Mr 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."

Mr Armbruster said the soft-spoken man complained of joint pain on 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.

Other elements of the story supported Mr 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 Mr Alvarenga said he worked for.

The photos also showed an enormous plastic cooler that Mr Alvarenga purportedly used to shelter himself from the sun and sea.

AP

Press Association

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