San Salvador - The Salvadoran castaway who says he spent 13
months adrift in the Pacific returned home in a wheelchair on Tuesday, but was
too emotional to speak as his nation welcomed him back.
Shaking his head and waving at dozens of news cameras in El
Salvador's main airport, Jose Salvador Alvarenga muttered only a few inaudible
words two weeks after washing ashore in the Marshall Islands.
Returning home after a two-day plane trip, the 37-year-old
fisherman handed the microphone back to Foreign Minister Jaime Miranda before
covering his eyes with one hand and being wheeled away by officials.
His story of survival captivated the world, earning sceptics
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 500km odyssey in a seven-metre
fiberglass boat by eating raw fish and birds while drinking turtle blood and
his own urine when rainwater was lacking.
But a 24-year-old companion died four months into the
ordeal, which ended when Alvarenga landed in an atoll on 30 January.
"The story of Jose is a story of faith but also a story
of struggle for life," Miranda said, adding that it was "a moment of
much happiness for Salvadorans."
Sporting a new haircut and clean shaven, Alvarenga was
expected to be taken to a hospital near San Salvador where doctors will decide
when he can return to his village on the Pacific coast, a place he had left some
15 years ago.
His parents and 14-year-old daughter, Fatima, were not seen
at the airport but they had decorated their home in Garita Palmera with blue
balloons, palm leaves and a "Welcome Home" sign for his arrival.
They last saw him six years ago and believed he had died.
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," she said.
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 20:00
local time (02:00 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 Organisation 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, 24-year-old
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
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 late 2012.
They say pictures of his boat in the Marshall Islands confirm it is his.