The family of a Salvadoran fisherman who says he survived at least 13 months at sea in an open boat had thought he was dead after losing touch with him eight years ago and are calling his astonishing story of survival a miracle.
While authorities said questions remained about his tale, relatives provided details that might help explain how Jose Salvador Alvarenga could survive floating across 6,500 miles of the Pacific in a small boat. They said he was always unusually strong and resilient and was an experienced sailor.
"The sea was his thing," Alvarenga's father, Jose Ricardo Orellana, 65, said Tuesday. Orellana, who owns a store and flour mill in the seaside Salvadoran town of Garita Palmera, said his son first went off to work at sea as a stocky 14-year-old.
Alvarenga's family reacted with joy after two phone calls from their long lost son, who told them he was getting medical treatment and food in the Marshall Islands. Alvarenga, who says he is 37 years old, later got a shave and a haircut.
He also confessed to his mother he didn't really know where he was.
Recounting their talks, his 59-year-old mother, Maria Julia Alvarenga, 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," she said.
The fisherman's 14-year-old daughter, Fatima, said she didn't remember 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 Alvarenga also spoke by phone on Tuesday to his brother in Maryland for the first time in years: "He got very emotional."
Bing helped relocate Alvarenga from the hospital to a hotel in Majuro, the capital of the Marshall Islands, on Tuesday.
Constant stream of well-wishers
"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 a constant stream of journalists and well-wishers had flowed into the hospital wanting to talk to Alvarenga and bringing him blankets, pillows, clothes and fruit. He said the hotel had increased its security to try to provide Alvarenga with some privacy.
The official said medical tests indicated Alvarenga was doing well. He was taking vitamins, and Tylenol to ease joint pain.
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 pay the cost of his stay.
He said questions remained about Alvarenga's story of an ordeal that began with him setting out to fish from a coastal village in southern Mexico, but added that authorities were focusing on getting him back to El Salvador.
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 Nov. 17, 2012, and no trace of them or the craft was found during an intense two-week search.
Discrepancy in dates
Alvarenga said his fellow fisherman, who he identified only with the first name of Ezequiel, died after about a month at sea and he threw the 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, 10,460 kilometres across the Pacific from the fishing hamlet of Costa Azul, 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 defence office, said two weeks of searches were fruitless and his comments 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."
Heavy rains, high winds
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."
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, 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 seven-meter fibreglass boat off course.
Photos from the Marshall Islands published by Britain's Telegraph newspaper show the boat he purportedly arrived in. It bore the hand-lettered name of a Chiapas fishing co-operative, 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.
Alvarenga's story mirrors the tale of three Mexican fishermen rescued by a trawler near the Marshall Islands in 2006 after nine months at sea.
Despite many doubters, 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 km 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.