Garita Palmera, El Salvador - A Salvadoran fisherman's account of his survival after more than 13 months and about 12 000km 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 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 - but told his mother he didn't know where he was.
“We hadn't heard from him for eight years, we thought he was dead already,” said Alvarenga. “This is a miracle, glory to God.”
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.”
The 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 that no trace of them or the craft was found despite 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, 12 000kmacross 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 December 21, 2012, but fishermen in the Chiapas hamlet of 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 seems 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 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 wonders about the survival story.
“You can imagine a lot of things, but that is something he should explain,” said Rodriguez. “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 US-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,” said US 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 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, said the ambassador. 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 ($2) per pound, when a storm blew his seven-metre fibreglass 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.
“When we saw him, he was not really thin compared to other survivors in the past,” said Bing. “I may have some doubts. Once we start communicating with where he's from, we'll be able to find out more information.”