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Sea survivor's Salvadoran family thought he died

Wednesday - 2/5/2014, 12:40am  ET

Associated Press

GARITA PALMERA, El Salvador (AP) -- 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."

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