WYOMING, Ohio (AP) — Celebrating the life of an American college student who was detained in North Korea for over a year and died shortly after returning home in a coma, a packed crowd of mourners gathered Thursday as Otto Warmbier’s loved ones shared stories about his affinity for hugs, thrift-store clothes-shopping and little-known rap music.
More mourners lined the street, with some holding signs of support and pressing the tips of their thumbs together to form a “W,” as a hearse carried away the casket after the public service at a school in Warmbier’s hometown of Wyoming, near Cincinnati. A rabbi officiated at the service, which was closed to news media.
“It doesn’t really feel real yet. He’s so young, and he’s been gone for so long,” said Grady Beerck, 22, a former soccer teammate. “The impact he made is always going to last with people.”
So many showed up that officials had to turn about a hundred people away once roughly 2,000 had filled an auditorium, cafeteria and gym for the service. Warmbier’s passport and jacket were on display as mourners signed a memorial book.
The attendees included Ambassador Joseph Yun, the U.S. special envoy who traveled to Pyongyang to bring Warmbier back, and U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, a Republican from the Cincinnati area.
Portman told the throng of reporters outside that North Korea must be held accountable for what happened to the 22-year-old University of Virginia student, who died Monday.
“This college kid never should have been detained in the first place,” said Portman, who previously revealed that he met secretly with North Korean officials in New York last December to press for Warmbier’s release. He said North Korea’s treatment of Warmbier demonstrated “a basic disregard for human rights, for human dignity.”
Warmbier was accused of trying to steal a propaganda banner while visiting North Korea in 2015 and was later convicted of subversion. His family said they were told that he had been in a coma since shortly after he was sentenced to prison with hard labor in March 2016.
After he returned to Ohio, doctors determined he had suffered a “severe neurological injury” of unknown cause. Warmbier’s family objected to an autopsy, so the Hamilton County coroner’s office conducted only an external examination of his body and is still trying to determine his cause of death.
It was his life that held mourners’ attention Thursday as they fondly remembered a spirited student-athlete who was socially magnetic and had a positive impact on the people around him, whether it was in class, at a swim club or in his travels.
“Didn’t matter what time of day or what he was doing, he’d drop everything to help his friends,” Beerck said. “He was a goofy kid. He always just lived life to the fullest.”
They heard stories about his life, rap music he listened to and his habit of shopping for sweaters at thrift stores. A bagpiper played as the casket was carried to a hearse.
Warmbier’s former soccer coach, Steve Thomas, said the Jewish student came from a religious family and was involved in mission trips and a birthright trip to Israel.
“He had a deep desire to know God in a personal way,” Thomas said. “He wasn’t big on doing things because he was supposed to do it. He did things because he wanted to do them.”
A handout for the funeral featured a photo of Warmbier posing next to his mother and included a quote from his salutatorian speech in 2013: “This is our season finale. This is the end of one great show, but just the beginning to hundreds of new spin-offs.”
Cynthia Meis, his college admissions counselor from high school, said she admires the strength displayed by Warmbier’s parents in the face of such loss and the glare of international media attention.
“The world stage is secondary to the fact that they’ve lost their child,” she said, “and I think we can all certainly appreciate that.”
Associated Press writer Kantele Franko in Columbus, Ohio, contributed to this report.
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