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Marshall Islands Castaway

Exclusive Interview: Real-Life Castaway Details Epic Survival

Image: A man, center, washed up on the shore of Marshall Islands claiming that he spent 16 months lost at sea.

A man who gave his name as Jose Salvador Alvarenga washed up on the shore of Marshall Islands claiming that he spent 16 months lost at sea. Courtesy Tony de Brum

The castaway who claims he spent more than a year lost at sea, drifting some 6,000 miles from Mexico to a remote Pacific atoll, said Monday that he contemplated suicide after his traveling companion starved to death before his eyes.

"I was going to commit suicide," Jose Salvador Alvarenga told NBC News partner Telemundo in Spanish during a phone interview from the Marshall Island hospital where he is recovering from his ordeal.

"I wanted to kill myself, but no. I asked God that he was going to save me."

Alvarenga, 37, has told authorities in the archipelago, which sits in the middle of the ocean between Hawaii and Australia, that he survived for months on fish, small birds, sharks and rainwater.

"When there was nothing, I would eat nothing," he said. "I would drink my urine. I spent a lot of time without eating."

Fishermen in the Mexican state of Chiapas told the El Universal newspaper that they knew Alvarenga and remembered the day he went missing.

"It’s a great surprise," fisherman Belarmino Rodriguez Solis told the newspaper in the Spanish-language article published Tuesday. "Nobody survives more than two or three months in those conditions.

"We even laid flowers in the palm hut where he lived," Solis added. "When fishermen leave and do not return we look for them."

Another fisherman, Williams Decuir Uscanga, said: "We’re surprised, we couldn't believe it, now that we saw him on the news we’re totally sure it is him."

The fishermen were from a village in the municipality of Pijijiapan, in Chiapas, and said this was where Alvarenga set sail in 2012.

"We want him to come [here] … when he left here he was a kid, he didn't have a beard," another fisherman, Jose Luis Ovando Corzo, told El Universal. "In 27 years I haven’t seen anyone survive so much time at sea, until this guy who is a world record [holder] for all fishermen."

The teenage son of a co-worker who had joined him on the fishing trip could not stomach the bizarre diet and died of hunger and thirst four weeks after a storm pushed their 24-foot fishing boat off course, Alvarenga told officials. He said he threw the body overboard.

The battered vessel finally washed up on a reef on Ebon Atoll last Thursday to the shock of islanders who found Alvarenga in ragged underwear, sporting a bushy beard and long hair — and telling a mind-boggling story.

Two days later he was taken by boat to the main island, Majuro, where he gave officials information about his background, including the names of relatives scattered from his hometown in El Salvador to the suburbs of the United States.

Real-Life Castaway's Family Speaks 0:38

After being contacted by NBC News early Monday, his siblings gathered together at a home in Maryland, hoping to confirm that the castaway was their long-lost brother, who had lost touch with the family a decade earlier.

They crowded around a television and watched a video of the fisherman after he landed in Majuro, grasping a can of Coke in his hand and smiling broadly.

"That's him!" they said.

They also said a photo taken of Alvarenga in the Marshall Islands on Monday appeared to be their flesh and blood. They remembered he had a tattoo of barbed wire — a detail also described by officials on the island. A list of relatives’ names he gave authorities all checked out, and he said he is from the same tiny town as the rest of the family.

“It’s incredible,” said Jorge Bonilla, who believes the castaway is his brother-in-law. “I am so happy.”

The family said their Jose Salvador Alvarenga left Garita Palmera, in El Salvador, more than a decade ago — and the last they heard he was fishing for a living in Mexico. So many years had passed, some feared he was dead.

Now they are poised for the most unlikely of reunions.

Asked what he would say to his family, Alvarenga told Telemundo: "That I miss the very much and I will be with them soon."

But officials have not yet verified his identity or his remarkable account. The man could not recall his own birth date or home addresses, did not know the last name of his employer, and could not explain why there was no fishing gear on the battered vessel, they said.

He said he set off on either Dec. 21, or Sept. 21, 2012, according to two different summaries of the interviews. Alvarenga specifically remembered it was a Saturday — but both of those dates fell on a Friday.

To confuse matters further, one of the fishermen interviewed by El Universal said Alvarenga set sail at 1.30 p.m. or 2 p.m. on Nov. 20, 2012, which was a Tuesday.

Castaway Welcomed Back to Dry Land 0:29

Marshall Islands resident Matt Riding, who served as a translator, told NBC News that Alvarenga was "super loopy and out of it but incredibly friendly."

"My mind is scrambled. I can’t think anymore," he said, according to Riding.

Alvarenga also had trouble standing and his joints were swollen. His main concern, though, was his unruly mane — which seemed to have been lightened by the sun.

"When do I get a haircut? I need a haircut," he kept asking.

I wanted to kill myself, but no. I asked God that he was going to save me.

Those who met him were skeptical but not dismissive of his story.

"He has gone through an ordeal, that’s clear," U.S. Ambassador Thomas Hart Armbruster told NBC News, but noted that Alvarenga did not fit the classic image of a person lost at sea for months on end.

"If he did survive on fish and turtles and birds he did a pretty good job of keeping himself fed,” he added.

“He has a story that can be verified so those are the next steps — to find out when he left Mexico and then add up the evidence and the information he has provided. But certainly if what he is saying is true, he is one of the best survivalists around."

Ambruster said that while he would expect someone who spent more than a year at sea without supplies to "be in worse shape," he conceded that "there is no alternate explanation at this point for how he wound up there."

Riding said he was skeptical at first, as well, because Alvarenga was not skin and bone. "But after taking to him I don’t have reason to doubt it," he said.

The fisherman has been fingerprinted and authorities in Mexico are trying to track down the details of his life there — which would provide the first real confirmation of how long he had been adrift on the Pacific.

"For a long time, we heard nothing about him. Nobody knew what happened to him," said Carlos Orellana, who believes he is the man’s brother.

"Everybody is so surprised. Everybody is so happy. But we need to find out more.”

NBC News' Kerry Sanders, Carlo Dellaverson, Alexander Smith and Brinley Bruton contributed to this story.

Image: Jose Salvador Alvarenga
Photo of Jose Salvador Alvarenga, who may be the same man who washed up on the Marshall Islands.