SAN SALVADOR: A castaway who says he spent 13 months adrift in the Pacific was waiting for the all-clear to leave hospital Wednesday after an emotional reunion with his parents and a hero’s welcome on his return to El Salvador.
Appearing in a wheelchair, shaking his head and waving at 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 after he landed late Tuesday.
Doctors will decide when he can return to his village located 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 on the Marshall Islands two weeks ago.
After medical checks, Alvarenga, 37, was able to see his mother, Maria Julia Alvarenga, and father, Ricardo Orellana, and his 14-year-old daughter, Fatima.
Local media reported that they hugged him tightly as he lay in his hospital bed.
The fisherman’s story of survival captivated the world, creating 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.
President Mauricio Funes sent his health minister to the hospital and his spokesman said he “asked that Mr. Alvarenga be treated with care.”
Alvarenga says he survived a 12,500-kilometer odyssey in a seven-meter 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 Jan. 30.
“The story of Jose is a story of faith but also a story of struggle for life,” said Foreign Minister Jaime Miranda, calling it “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 as he looked out and was soon after wheeled away.
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 p.m. local time.
Officials said he was in a delicate state 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 beard, but looking plump.
But officials have said his story checks out, and survival experts concede living in such conditions is theoretically possible.