SEOUL, South Korea – Hwang In-yeol and his wife waited seven years to have a child, and then she was born on Oct. 29, 1997. After a ferry disaster in April that killed her and 303 others, the couple waited again for nearly seven months to see Ji-hyeon's body. The vigil ended Wednesday when divers retrieved their only child's body on her 17th birthday.
"The saddest birthday party on the earth," read a headline in the Hankyoreh newspaper Thursday alongside a picture showing a sobbing Hwang standing with his wife on Wednesday before a whipped-cream cake with glowing candles on it.
"Please, wait peacefully for me in heaven. Daddy will follow you soon," the 51-year-old Hwang was quoted as saying.
Divers found Ji-hyeon's body on Tuesday around a toilet in the sunken ship Sewol, but it took one day to pull it up to the surface because of strong currents and its decaying condition. The results of DNA tests released Thursday confirmed the body belongs to Ji-hyeon.
Her body is the first recovered since July 18, raising the official death toll from the April 16 sinking to 295, mostly high school students who were travelling to a southern island for a school trip. Nine others are still missing.
Hours before the body was brought up, Hwang and his wife Shim Myeong-seop threw a party to celebrate their daughter's 18th birthday at a gym on the southwestern island of Jindo, where they have been staying since April 16 to be closer to the searches.
Many Asian cultures, including South Korean, count the age of the newborn baby as 1, and by that method Ji-hyeon would have celebrated her 18th birthday on Wednesday. The entire Korean media reported it as such.
The parents were confident the body was that of their daughter because of the clothes on her, according to volunteer workers helping families of the missing people.
The Hankyoreh newspaper said Hwang and his wife also offered a bowl of rice, rice cakes, sea mustard soup and pizza at the party, which was also attended by family members of the nine other missing people.
"It was a great help because so many people congratulated us on our daughter's birthday," Hwang, the father, was quoted as saying.
Ji-hyeon's body was airlifted to her hometown of Ansan, just south Seoul, on Thursday for a funeral, according to Jang Kil-hwan, the director of volunteers on Jindo Island.
Hwang did not immediately respond to calls, but in a previous interview with The Associated Press he had described Ji-hyeon as a "precious gift." During their months-long vigil in the gym in Jindo, his wife had hobbled on aching knees every morning to a lighthouse at the island's Paengmok port and thrown a few spoonful of rice into the sea. She called it breakfast for her daughter, and a prayer that divers will find her body soon.
Hwang, who works for an auto parts manufacturer, then regretted that he couldn't talk to his daughter enough before the sinking because of his long working hours.
"Ji-hyeon had a talent for painting. She was also studying Chinese with the goal of becoming a translator," Hwang had told the AP. "But I wish I knew more about my daughter than I do now."
The sinking, one of South Korea's deadliest disasters in decades, caused nationwide grief and fury, with authorities blaming overloading of cargo, improper storage, untimely rescue efforts and other negligence for the incident.
On Monday, South Korean prosecutors demanded the death penalty for the ferry's captain and life sentences for three other key crew members, blaming their negligence and abandonment of passengers for the massive loss of life. A local district court is to issue verdicts on the 15 crew members in November. __
Associated Press writer Hyung-jin Kim contributed to this report.