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Marshall Islands Castaway

'Such sadness': Family of Castaway's Fishing Mate Mourns

Image: Outrigger canoes in the Marshall Islands on Aug. 29, 2013.

Outrigger canoes in the Marshall Islands on Aug. 29, 2013. GIFF JOHNSON / AFP / Getty Images file

Pacific castaway Jose Salvador Alvarenga's family beamed with joy after hearing that he had survived for more than a year in an unforgiving sea, drifting 6,000 miles from a Mexican fishing village to a remote Marshall Islands atoll.

But for another family, Alvarenga's remarkable tale of endurance has brought only tears.

Alvarenga told authorities that his fishing buddy, Ezequiel Cordoba, 24, died several weeks into the oceanic odyssey — succumbing to hunger and thirst because he could not stomach the raw fish and birds they caught with their hands.

"This is very difficult," Cordoba's aunt, Rosalinda Hernandez, told NBC partner Telemundo, weeping as she spoke of the young man who left to join Alvarenga, 37, on a fishing trip in November 2012.

"Such sadness."

Cordoba's family is extremely poor, and he hoped to make some extra money by helping Alvarenga, an experienced fisherman, catching shark in the 24-foot fiberglass boat, his aunt said.

By Alvarenga's account, a sudden storm from the north pushed their vessel off-course. The engine died and they were left adrift.

At the time, the government sent helicopters to look for boats that were stranded by the bad weather and came up empty.

As months passed, fellow fisherman assumed Cordoba and Alvarenga were dead because no one could imagine anyone surviving more than a few months without supplies on such a small vessel.

Then, last Thursday, the boat washed up on Ebon Atoll, part of the Marshall Islands, an archipelago in the middle of the Pacific between Hawaii and Australia. Inside was Alvarenga, wearing ragged underwear and a bushy beard.

His story — which has still not been officially confirmed by authorities — was that about a month after they got lost at sea, Cordoba starved to death and he threw his body overboard.

Image: Ezequiel Cordoba
Ezequiel Cordoba saw Jose Salvador Alvarenga on Dec. 18, 2012, when he left to go fishing with Jose Salvador Alvarenga. Courtesy of Telemundo

Alvarenga said he considered killing himself but changed his mind, and instead prayed. He caught fish, small birds and other sea creatures with his hands and drank his own urine when he ran out of rainwater, he claimed.

"When there was nothing, I would eat nothing," he told Telemundo in a phone interview on Monday.

The story had some holes; Alvarenga gave a couple of different dates for his departure, couldn't answer some simple questions about his life, and was described by a translator as "loopy" and in pain.

He definitely wasn't skeletal and appeared in decent health except for some dehydration, officials said. There were doubts he had been adrift for a year, but his account was shored up by his fishermen friends in Mexico, who remembered when he left.

And now, Cordoba's family is backing up the rough timelines.

"It was a year on November 18th," Hernandez said of the last time she saw her nephew. "We're now in February, it's been more than a year."

She said she was baffled by Alvarenga's resurfacing and hoped that he would provide more information about Cordoba's last days.

"What happened, was he eaten by sharks?" she asked.

Rosalinda Hernandez, aunt of Ezequiel, the fisherman who died while at sea. NBC News

She said Cordoba's mother, Roselia Diaz, had a life pocked by heartbreak.

"There are five boys. Of the five, three years ago one was killed at 19," she said. "Now two, three years later another tragedy — this time with Ezequiel...She is such a hurt mother and this is so difficult for all of us."

Alvarenga's family, meanwhile, is waiting for a joyous reunion and has already spoken to him by phone.

“They told me that he had entered the sea and that he’d never come out,” his father 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.”

Although the castaway had lived illegally in Mexico for 15 years, he was born and raised in El Salvador. It's unknown which country he will end up in after he leaves the Marshall Islands.

Mexican diplomat Cristian Clay told NBC News details were being worked out.

"He's a little bit confused still. His moods go up and down. He's very eager to see his family in El Salvador, he hasn't seen them for many years," Clay said. "He's also expressed that he would like to uh see some people in Mexico that he left behind and were going to talk about all these things."

NBC News' Carlo Dellaverson contributed to this story.