SAN SALVADOR (AFP) – The castaway who says he spent 13 months adrift in the Pacific was reunited with his parents and teenage daughter after receiving a hero’s welcome on his return home to El Salvador.
Appearing in a wheelchair, shaking his head and waving at dozens of news cameras at El Salvador’s main airport, Jose Salvador Alvarenga muttered only a few inaudible words before an ambulance whisked him off to a hospital near the capital shortly after landing.
There doctors will decide when he can return to his village on the Pacific coast, a place he left some 15 years ago. His parents last saw him eight years ago and believed him dead, until he made global headlines after washing ashore in the Marshall Islands two weeks ago.
After medical checks, Alvarenga, 37, was finally able to see his mother Maria Julia Alvarenga and father, Ricardo Orellana, and his 14-year-old daughter Fatima, according to images from local media, which said they hugged him tightly as he lay in bed in the hospital.
The fisherman’s story of survival captivated the world, earning skeptics but also believers, including officials and fishermen who say they searched for him after he disappeared off the coast of Mexico in late 2012.
Alvarenga says he survived a 12,500-kilometer (8,000-mile) odyssey in a seven-meter (24-foot) fiberglass boat by eating raw fish and birds while drinking turtle blood and his own urine when rainwater was lacking.
A 24-year-old companion died four months into the ordeal, which ended when Alvarenga landed in an atoll on January 30.
“The story of Jose is a story of faith but also a story of struggle for life,” said Foreign Minister Jaime Miranda, adding that it was “a moment of much happiness for Salvadorans.”
Earlier, Alvarenga was afforded a huge welcome as he completed a two-day plane trip back to his homeland, although he was clearly overawed by the airport reception, with onlookers and airport staff applauding him.
Wearing a dark blue T-shirt, khaki pants and sneakers, and sporting a clean shave and new haircut, Alvarenga covered his eyes with one hand and was soon after wheeled away.
‘He is a warrior’
Alvarenga was living on Mexico’s southern coast when he says he went on the ill-fated shark-fishing trip in late 2012.
“He could have died. But thanks to God my cousin is a warrior because I don’t know what would have happened to another person,” said Marisol Alvarenga, 35, who came to the airport with another cousin to wait for his arrival.
“We are happy he is coming back after so much time.”
After a health setback delayed his departure from the Marshall Islands until Monday, officials took no chances and made Alvarenga undergo checkups before every flight.
He was given the all-clear in Hawaii and then in Los Angeles, allowing him to board a flight that landed in El Salvador around 8:00 pm local time (0200 GMT).
Officials said he was in a delicate state, with swollen feet but in stable condition.
The fisherman was in and out of hospital in the Marshall Islands, suffering from dehydration and a range of ailments including back pain, swollen joints and lethargy.
The International Organization for Migration paid for his return trip after the Salvadoran government requested help.
“I can’t comment on his medical condition because I’m not a doctor, but at the same time my feelings would be that what he’s going through psychologically are also incredibly strong challenges of adjustment,” said IOM mission chief Delbert Field.
Alvarenga told AFP last week that his crewmate, Ezequiel Cordoba, could not stomach the unusual diet and starved to death.
Cordoba’s family in the southern Mexico state of Chiapas say they want Alvarenga to tell them what happened, though they do not blame him for his death.
Alvarenga’s miraculous story was met with some doubt when images first emerged of him with shaggy hair and a bushy beard, but looking plump.
But officials have said his story checks out, and survival experts concede living in such conditions is theoretically possible.
Fishermen in the Mexican village of Chocohuital backed up his story, saying they went looking for him when he disappeared in 2012. They say pictures of his boat in the Marshall Islands confirm it is his.