A man lost at sea for more than a year survived, he says, on only what he caught from a small fishing boat. It seems improbable, but doctors say it's possible.
The father of Pacific castaway Jose Salvador Alvarenga said he was told his long-lost son vanished on a fishing trip but he didn’t have the heart to break the news to his ailing wife.
Courtesy of Telemundo
Ezequiel Cordoba saw Jose Salvador Alvarenga on Dec. 18, 2012, when he left to go fishing with Jose Salvador Alvarenga.
Now both parents are celebrating after learning that the son they last saw almost a decade ago is alive after washing up on the Marshall Islands with a long beard and an astonishing story of more than a year lost at sea.
“They told me that he had entered the sea and that he’d never come out,” Ricardo Orellana told NBC partner Telemundo from the family home in El Salvador.
“But because she was ill, I told her nothing,” he said of his wife, Julia Alvarenga, who wept tears of gratitude.
Although she had no idea that Alvarenga had left Mexico on a 24-foot boat and never returned, because he had been out of touch for so long, she worried misfortune had befallen him.
“I pleaded to my all powerful God that if my son was still alive, that he would take care of him. If he was dead, that he would forgive him,” she said.
“But now I'm saying thank you to God. Blessed thanks to God because I didn't think I would hear this news.”
Photo of Jose Salvador Alvarenga as a young man.
The couple, who live in Garita Palmera, got word of Alvarenga’s oceanic ordeal after NBC News tracked down the castaway’s relatives in the U.S. and informed them of his whereabouts. They recognized him from photos and confirmed he had a barbed-wire tattoo on his arm.
The shark fisherman claims he set off from Mexico in late 2012, was blown off course by a storm, and survived on raw fish, small birds, sharks and rainwater.
"When there was nothing, I would eat nothing," he told Telemundo in a phone interview on Monday. "I would drink my urine. I spent a lot of time without eating."
After his traveling companion, Ezequiel Cordoba, starved to death because he could not stomach the bizarre diet, Alvarenga threw the body overboard and contemplated taking his own life.
"I was going to commit suicide," he said from the hospital in the Marshall Islands where he is recovering.
"I wanted to kill myself, but no. I asked God that he was going to save me."
Jose Salvador Alvarenga, the castaway, holding his daughter, Fatima Maeva Alvarenga, in El Salvador, when she was a baby. She is now 14 and has not seen her father for years.
His battered vessel finally washed up on a reef on Ebon Atoll — 6,000 miles from Mexico and in the middle of the ocean between Hawaii and Australia — last Thursday.
Shocked islanders found Alvarenga in ragged underwear, a bushy beard and long hair — telling a tale that almost defied belief.
But an aunt of Cordoba confirmed Tuesday that her 24-year-old nephew had left their village of Fortin on Dec. 18, 2012, to go off with Alvarenga — and never came back.
Fellow fisherman in Mexico say they remember when the duo vanished off the coast of Chiapas and assumed they were dead.
"It’s a great surprise," fisherman Belarmino Rodriguez Solis told the El Universal newspaper. "Nobody survives more than two or three months in those conditions.
"We even laid flowers in the palm hut where he lived," Solis added. "When fishermen leave and do not return, we look for them."
"In 27 years I haven’t seen anyone survive so much time at sea until this guy, who is a world record for all fishermen," another fisherman from a village in the municipality of Pijijiapan, Jose Luis Ovando Corzo, told the newspaper.
There are some holes and inconsistencies in Alvarenga’s account. He could not recall his own birth date or home addresses, did not know the last name of his employer, and could not explain why there was no fishing gear on the battered vessel.
He said he set off on either Dec. 21, or Sept. 21, 2012, according to two different summaries of the interviews. He specifically remembered it was a Saturday — but both of those dates fell on a Friday.
The man believed to be the brother of a man that washed upon a reef says, he's happy to know he's alive.
And some survival experts are skeptical of Alvarenga's description of how he stayed alive so long.
Marshall Islands resident Matt Riding, who served as a translator, told NBC News that Alvarenga was "super loopy and out of it but incredibly friendly."
"My mind is scrambled. I can’t think anymore," he said, according to Riding.
Three days after he stepped foot on dry land, Alvarenga still had trouble standing and his joints were swollen. His main concern, though, was his unruly mane — which seemed to have been lightened by the sun.
"When do I get a haircut? I need a haircut," he kept asking.
He finally got one on Monday.
The next step is figuring out his next stop on the journey. He had lived illegally in Mexico for up to 15 years, so he might be returned to El Salvador, where he left behind a young daughter years ago.
Speaking by phone to a sister, Evelin, he had a message for his family.
"I want to go home," he said. "I want to talk to Mommy."
NBC News' Carlo Dellaverson, Alexander Smith, and Brinley Bruton contributed to this story.
Jose Salvador Alvarenga, who claims he spent more than a year lost at sea, stepped warily off a boat in the Marshall Islands' capital with the help of a nurse after being transported from the isolated atoll where he was washed up.
This story was originally published on Tue Feb 4, 2014 8:11 PM EST