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June 24, 2017

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Emotional return for Salvadoran castaway

SAN SALVADOR -- The Salvadoran castaway who says he spent 13 months adrift in the Pacific returned home Tuesday, appearing in a wheelchair and too emotional to speak as his nation welcomed him.

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.

Onlookers and airport staff applauded Alvarenga, who was wearing a dark blue T-shirt, khaki pants and sneakers, and sporting a clean shave and new haircut.

His 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 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.

But 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," Miranda said, adding that it was "a moment of much happiness for Salvadorans."

Alvarenga was then whisked off to a hospital near the capital San Salvador where doctors will decide when he can return to his village on the Pacific coast, a place he 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.

His father, Ricardo Orellana, and mother, Maria Julia Alvarenga, last saw him eight years ago and believed he had died.

'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 p.m. 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.

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