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.
Comments by Jose Salvador Alvarenga’s joyful, sometimes tearful parents about their son may help explain how he survived, but they did little to dispel continued doubts about his tale.
His father, Jose Ricardo Orellana, 65, who owns a store and a flour mill in the seaside Salvadoran town of Garita Palmera, described a strong, stocky young man who went to sea at age 14. “The sea was his thing,” Orellana said.
His mother, Maria Julia Alvarenga, 59, broke into tears after recounting a phone call with her son from the Marshall Islands. He told her he was well, staying at a hotel and getting food and medicine.
“We hadn’t heard from him for eight years; we thought he was dead already,” she said. “This is a miracle, glory to God.”
Relatives in the Washington area learned that Jose Salvador Alvarenga was alive Monday morning when his photo and a story about his time at sea were posted to Facebook, said Evelin Orellana, one of his six siblings living in the United States.
“We couldn’t believe it. After so long, we had almost accepted the idea that he was dead,” said Orellana, 26, of Silver Spring, Md. “All of a sudden one morning I wake up, and he has been found alive!”
Orellana said she and her siblings had not seen their brother for about a decade, since he left their home in the Salvadoran state of Ahuachapan, headed to the United States. Relatives thought he got lost or died on the way, she said.
His parents said he was known in his home town as Cirilo, a nickname that coincides with the first name of a man registered as missing with civil defense officials in the Mexican state of Chiapas. The civil defense office said that a small fishing boat carrying two men, Cirilo Vargas and Ezequiel Cordoba, disappeared during bad weather on Nov. 17, 2012, and that no trace of them or the craft was found despite two weeks of intense searches.
Alvarenga said his fellow fisherman, whom he identified only by 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 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 Dec. 21, 2012, but fishermen in the Chiapas hamlet of Costa Azul said a Central American man known as “La Chancha” had been lost since November 2012. Alvarenga may have used multiple nicknames and seems fuzzy about details of his voyage.
He 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,” said U.S. Ambassador Tom Armbruster 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. Otherwise, the ambassador added, Alvarenga seemed in reasonable health.
Orellana said she talked to her brother Monday afternoon. He sounded happy, she said.
“He is ready to go home,” she said. “He said he is overwhelmed with all the questions and media attention. It’s been hard on him to be at sea for so long and still have to deal with all this pressure.”
Armbruster, who speaks Spanish, said Alvarenga told him he was working for a man named Willie, catching sharks for 25 pesos ($1.90) per pound, when a storm blew his seven-foot 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.”
Gee Bing, the Marshall Islands’ acting secretary of foreign affairs, said, “I’m not sure if I believe his story” after meeting with Alvarenga on Monday.
Orellana did not address questions about whether the family believes her brother’s account of his time at sea. She said they are simply trying to absorb the news that he’s alive.
“We are anxiously waiting for the day he returns home,” she said. “We are so grateful to God that he is alive. We are so happy, it is hard to describe.”
— Associated Press
Luz Lazo contributed to this report.