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article imageCastaway says boats ignored cries for help

By Laurent THOMET (AFP)     Feb 12, 2014 in World

The castaway who says he survived 13 months adrift in the Pacific cried for help as several ships passed by during his ordeal but they ignored his pleas, El Salvador's health minister said Wednesday.

After meeting Jose Salvador Alvarenga in a hospital, Maria Isabel Rodriguez said the fisherman was in impressive physical shape but that needs psychological attention following his odyssey.

Alvarenga, 37, spent the night at a hospital near San Salvador after landing late Tuesday following a long flight home from the Marshall Islands, where he washed ashore two weeks ago.

Alvarenga says he set off on an ill-fated shark fishing trip off Mexico's southern coast in late 2012 before drifting 12,500 kilometers (8,000 miles) for more than a year.

A 24-year-old crewmate died four months into the voyage, unable to stomach a diet that was limited to urine, turtle blood, raw fish and bird flesh, according to Alvarenga.

Family watch the broadcast of the arrival of Pacific castaway Jose Salvador Alvarenga at their house...
Family watch the broadcast of the arrival of Pacific castaway Jose Salvador Alvarenga at their house in Garita Palmera, El Salvador, on February 11, 2014
Jose Cabezas, AFP

"He told us that he almost lost any hope of returning to the world because he did not get support," Rodriguez told a news conference at the San Rafael National Hospital.

"He told us how several boats passed by, including close to him. He asked for help and they did not want to help him," she said.

One ship's crew waved back at him but did not stop to help the shaggy-haired castaway, who was only in his underwear, she said.

Another came so close that "it almost destroyed his little boat because it passed next to him," Rodriguez said.

His psychological fragility contrasted with his good physical shape, which has impressed doctors following Alvarenga's unusual diet.

Salvadorean doctor Manuel Bello speaks during a press conference about the health condition of his p...
Salvadorean doctor Manuel Bello speaks during a press conference about the health condition of his patient, castaway Jose Salvador Alvarenga, at the San Rafael hospital in Santa Tecla, El Salvador on February 12, 2014
Johan Ordonez, AFP

"His physical condition is enviable," Rodriguez said.

Alvarenga asked for a corn tortilla and sugary bread at the hospital.

Tests on his kidneys and heart found nothing abnormal, but he will undergo a psychological evaluation to determine when he can return to his home village of Garita Palmera and his family on the Pacific coast.

"He gets tired quickly, loses a little bit of control. He is still not ready to communicate with the world. He cries easily," Rodriguez said.

Alvarenga was unable to utter any intelligible words to a gaggle of news cameras as he arrived, carried in a wheelchair, at San Salvador airport on Tuesday.

He shook his head, waved and put one hand in front of his eyes before being wheeled away.

Alvarenga was reunited with his long-lost parents, Ricardo Orellana and Maria Julia Alvarenga, and 14-year-old daughter Fatima at the hospital, with pictures showing the family hugging him tightly as he lay in bed.

His parents last saw him eight years ago and believed him dead, until he made global headlines after washing ashore in the Marshall Islands on January 30.

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.

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 home.

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.

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.

More about Marshalls, Mexico, Salvador, Survival, Transport
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