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Sea survivor Jose Salvador Alvarenga's Salvadoran family thought he died


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.

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 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 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, 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 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 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."

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 U.S.-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 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, 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 ($1.90) per pound, when a storm blew his 23-foot (7-meter) 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 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."

Join the discussion

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peachces91153 February 04 2014 at 11:05 PM

the most important thing is he was found. my qestions are:what happen to the last 8 years that his family is refering too? why did no other boats see him?

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teevnntt1 February 04 2014 at 6:19 PM

Don't quite believe this persons story. He might have been out to sea for a short while, maybe a week, but not 13 months. He would not have survived any ordeal that comes with being "lost at sea". I'm sure he would have been found by any of the large ships out there. He just wants attention and should travel back to his own country to where is daughter and parents are waiting to see him. More to the story, though. He sounds a bit of a shady character.

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Julia February 04 2014 at 11:18 PM

Sorry, but I just don't buy this.

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1 reply
ps7603 Julia February 04 2014 at 11:31 PM

I agree with you.

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Denise February 04 2014 at 6:18 PM

If you want to know who he is - do a DNA test with the little girl. If that is her father the DNA test will tell the truth. If its not then he is not telling a true tale of his journey. This doesn't mean the man didn't have a journey but this one is not his then.

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1 reply
kline j1 Denise February 04 2014 at 6:35 PM

I don't think his identity is being questioned but I'm sure they will check him just to be sure, I think he traveled from Island to Island and was eventually found.

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attyclientpriv February 04 2014 at 6:18 PM

Back in 1962 my father floated over from Cuba on an 8 foot wooden boat; he was in the ocean for 6 days. The current took him up just off the coast of Savannah, GA. On the last day he drank salt water twice -- he says it was good. Due to water landing in the boat he was forced to jump outside of the boat into the ocean just so that his weight would be held by the water while holding onto the edge of the boat to keep it from sinking. He tried to drown himself on that last day but was unable to since his hands/fingers froze in the clamped position from hanging on the side of the boat. When a large ship picked him and his boat up with a net and brought him into safety he was taken to a hospital in Georgia where he stayed for 2 weeks. In that hospital my father could not smile or else the blood would flow from the edges of his burnt lips; blood would creep out of his skin if he bent his elbows, knees, or even cringed his eyes. Pop was seriously burned from the sun...... in only 6 days folks. If anyone believes this guy with his beautiful white skin and without burns and oozing blood of having lived in the ocean for over a year, you must believe in the tooth fairy, Peter Pan, and the Easter Beagle.

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1 reply
jjaywillette attyclientpriv February 04 2014 at 6:27 PM

Holy Crap!! Your father could have written a book.Lucky for him.I wouldn't last 3 days...But i think you're right,your father was in the water for 6 days,and nearly died...This guy looks a little too healthy in my book..But i might be wrong...But i have a feeling the real truth will come out

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medstatdenver February 04 2014 at 11:20 PM

He does not appear sunburned.
Beard appears too short - unless he somehow cut it.
Not emaciated on such a poor diet?
Any diseases, like scurvy or rickets from lacking nutrients?

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1 reply
mrtimelord medstatdenver February 04 2014 at 11:43 PM

Didn't you read the report ? He was described as somewhat emaciated

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Lorraine February 04 2014 at 11:21 PM

how about a dna test with the parents....question answered!

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2 replies
corbshoot Lorraine February 04 2014 at 11:24 PM

This is a bs story from beginning to end. This guy is fatter than I am and I am fat.

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1 reply
mrtimelord corbshoot February 04 2014 at 11:41 PM

He was also discribed as emaciated. He may have been a LOT fatter than YOU !
His Nickname was the PIG not the piglet.

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mrtimelord Lorraine February 04 2014 at 11:39 PM

How about just meeting them ?

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Dr. Cal Harris February 04 2014 at 6:16 PM

I spent about 16 years of my life on sea duty in the Navy and can tell you that, if totally true this is one amazing story.

Even if he was very obese when he left S. America all of his body fat would surely have burned off in 13 moths. He still looks pretty hefty to me. If he was on the atoll for a period of time, he might have been able to find enough food to beef up.

But, who cares? The found him. Whether it was one month, two months or ???? it is a miracle.

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sassycass113 February 04 2014 at 11:23 PM

No way was he at sea for 13 months ....for one thing hes tooooooooo fat lmfao

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Capt. BOB February 04 2014 at 11:25 PM

I was born by the seaside, and had my A. in the sea since I was 3 years old. I am a professional seaman, a Navy Officer with the highest naval, and survival, educations.
YES it is possible to survive at sea on your own, that long.
But you need just some equipment that should have been ON his boat and he does not mention about.
Yes he is stocky. He never said he starved do death did he ? The bloated ankles and wrists are characteristics of being in sea water for too many hours every day. I see his hands are very strong and not puffy at all. To catch birds or fishes, even turtles "with hands only " seem quite uneasy. I do not say impossible. When a kid I played to do so. Give him a test for a week: back at sea, with the same equipment, and then check him again ( sun burnt and weight especially ). His hair not burnt ? He is RED haired like a viking. What is his normal hair color , is not it black ? Oiling your hair(s) with greasy fishes like flying fishes is far ENOUGH for a 100% protection...

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1 reply
GOBGOTZ Capt. BOB February 05 2014 at 12:54 AM

You sure as hell weren't born near or in a class room.

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