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Marshall Islands castaway details fishing trip gone awry

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By Tracy Connor, Staff Writer, NBC News

The man who washed up on the Marshall Islands in the Pacific with a tale of being lost at sea for more than a year told authorities that he left Mexico on a fishing trip, was blown off course after his engine died and watched his traveling companion starve to death, officials said Monday

The castaway, who identified himself as Jose Salvador Alvarenga, was questioned Monday by police and told them an incredible story: He drifted 6,000 miles in a 24-foot boat, surviving on fish, birds, turtles, rainwater, urine -- and prayers.

Officials said they have not yet confirmed his account. The man could not recall his own birth date, provided some conflicting information about when he left Mexico, and could not explain why there was no fishing gear on the battered vessel.

"He is not fully coherent," Tony de Brum, minister-in-assistance to the president of the republic, a cluster of atolls and islands northeast of Australia.

"He is hungry, swollen, in pain, extremely loopy and wants a haircut," an interpreter who helped interview Alvarenga on Monday wrote in a report.

Using a list of relatives' names the man gave authorities, NBC News contacted several possible family members, who said they recognized him from photos taken Monday in the Marshall Islands. They said they had not heard from him in several years and feared he was dead.

"It's incredible," brother-in-law Jorge Bonilla said when told of how Alvarenga supposedly wound up in the Marshall Islands.

Despite his fragile state, the man was able to give officials new details of his life, including the town where he was born in El Salvador; the names of his parents, siblings and a daughter; and the name of his boss in Mexico.

He told them he had been living in Mexico for more than a decade, working as a shark fisherman, officials said. He said he took to the sea on Sept. 21, 2012 -- although described that as a Saturday when it would have been a Friday -- with a teenager named Xiquel, the son of a co-worker.

"The boat engine died, and they started drifting," the interpreter wrote.

Alvarenga said he survived day after day by eating whatever he could catch with his hands, according to the interpreter's report. He said he had to hold his own nose to choke down the raw food.

"The friend wasn't so lucky," the interpreter wrote. "He was unable to keep food down, and he starved to death after four months."

Alvarenga said he threw the young man's body over board. With no one to talk to, he prayed and asked God to send him food, he told officials.

Marshall Islands officials have sent the information to Mexico in the hope of confirming his identity and locating his family, and U.S. embassy officials.

Alvarenga's boat floated onto a reef on Ebon Atoll on Thursday. The islanders who found him described him as wearing ragged clothes, with a bushy beard and long hair.

No one there was fluent in Spanish, and there is no phone service on the atoll, so initial details were sketchy. The atoll residents initially reported that the castaway drank turtle blood to quench his thirst, but the interpreter said he did not mention that in a later interview.

After Alvarenga was given IV fluids on Ebon, he was taken by boat to the main island of Majuro on Monday. He was immediately admitted to the hospital for further evaluation and treatment, de Brum said.

He told the interpreter that he has holes in his memory and feels "crazy" after being alone on the water for so long.

"We are not asking him too many hard questions yet," said de Brum. "He is receiving medical care."

Carlos Orellana said a photo of the bearded man clutching a Coke can as he got off a boat in Majuro looked like his long-lost brother, though he said it had been nearly a decade since his siblings had seen him and he worried that he might be wrong.

"For a long time, we heard nothing about him. Nobody knew what happened to him," Orellana said. "Everybody is so surprised. Everybody is so happy. But we need to find out more."

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