Otto Warmbier funeral: Ohio town celebrates life of North Korea detainee

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The Ohio hometown of Otto Warmbier, who died last week after his return from 17 months in detention in North Korea, gathered at the 22-year-old’s alma mater Thursday to bid him farewell.

Hundreds of well-wishers waited in two lines outside Wyoming High School’s arts center at least an hour before his funeral was set to begin at 9 a.m. ET in the Cincinnati suburb. The auditorium has an overflow capacity of 800 people, and there is room for several hundred more in other areas of the school.

Among the expected speakers are Warmbier’s brother, Austin, his sister, Greta, and some of his friends, according to the funeral program. Also expected to attend is US Ambassador Joseph Yun, the special representative for North Korea policy, who helped secure Warmbier’s release

The front of the funeral program featured a quote from Warmbier’s 2013 salutatorian speech: “This is our season finale. This is the end of one great show, but just the beginning to hundreds of new spinoffs.”

Warmbier returned to the United States last week in a coma, only to die six days after his arrival. North Korea officials say Warmbier contracted botulism and slipped into a coma after taking a sleeping pill.

His official cause of death is unknown, as his parents declined to have an autopsy conducted on their son.

“It would be easy at a moment like this to focus on all that we lost — future time that won’t be spent with a warm, engaging, brilliant young man whose curiosity and enthusiasm for life knew no bounds,” Fred and Cindy Warmbier said in a statement.

“We choose to focus on the time we were given to be with this remarkable person. You can tell from the outpouring of emotion from the communities that he touched — Wyoming, Ohio, and the University of Virginia to name just two — that the love for Otto went well beyond his immediate family.”

Mysterious death

Warmbier visited North Korea in January 2016 on a sightseeing tour. He was arrested for allegedly stealing a political sign from a restricted area and sentenced two months later to 15 years of hard labor.

President Donald Trump’s administration worked to secure his return, and upon doing so, learned Warmbier could not speak or move voluntarily. His doctors said he suffered extensive brain damage.

His physicians said he suffered from unresponsive wakefulness, a condition also known as persistent vegetative state. In a news conference before Warmbier’s death, they said they found no evidence of botulism, casting doubt on North Korea’s claim.

“This pattern of brain injury is usually seen as result of cardiopulmonary arrest where blood supply to the brain is inadequate for a period of time, resulting in the death of brain tissue,” Dr. Daniel Kanter said last week.

‘They are responsible’

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, in remarks to reporters before the funeral, said he and his wife had spent Warmbier’s 22nd birthday in December with the detained young man’s parents. He described Warmbier as outgoing, athletic, bright and curious.

The senator accused North Korea of a “disregard for basic human rights, basic human dignity.” He said he suspected Warmbier was denied basic medical care while detained in the reclusive country.

“Yes, they are responsible,” Portman said of the North Korean regime. “This college kid never should’ve been detained in the first place.”

The Hamilton County Coroner’s Office conducted only an external examination Warmbier’s body. The coroner’s office reviewed medical records from the University of Cincinnati Medical Center and the air ambulance service that helped ferry Warmbier from Pyongyang to Cincinnati.

“No conclusions about the cause and manner of Mr. Warmbier’s death have been drawn at this time as there are additional medical records and imaging to review and people to interview,” the coroner’s office statement said.

CNN’s Kelly Christ contributed to this report.