A crowd of roughly 2,000 people filled a high school auditorium to capacity Friday in Otto Warmbier’s hometown to celebrate the life of the student who died earlier this week after being detained for a nearly a year and a half in North Korea, sharing stories about his affinity for hugs, thrift-store clothes-shopping and little-known rap music.

“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, told The Associated Press. “The impact he made is always going to last with people.”

Around 2,000 mourners arrived at the morning memorial service for Warmbier held in the auditorium of his alma mater, Wyoming High School. The memorial is open to the public, but not the media. Around 100 people were turned away, The Associated Press reported.

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 service.


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.

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.”


His former soccer coach, Steve Thomas, said Warmbier 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.”

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.

“This process has been an example of evil and love and good,” Portman told reporters outside the service, Fox 19 reported. “This community and country have come together who are holding this family up in prayer.”

He added: “We have also seen evil. He should’ve never been detained. The North Koreans need to be held accountable for that. They have demonstrated that they have no respect for the rule of law and they showed a lack of respect for basic human dignity and rights. The fact that they didn’t tell his parents after he became ill is atrocious. Today is not a day to only focus on that.”

At a candlelight vigil Tuesday on the University of Virginia campus, Warmbier’s girlfriend at the time of his detention described the loss of a soul mate. Alex Vagonis said she drew some peace from knowing Warmbier got home to Ohio before his death.

Warmbier’s family objected to an autopsy, so the Hamilton County coroner’s office conducted only an external examination of his body. Medical records have been reviewed, and his condition was discussed extensively by treating physicians at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center, where he was hospitalized after his June 13 return.

Warmbier’s parents cited “awful, torturous mistreatment” by North Korea. Doctors last week said he suffered a “severe neurological injury” of unknown cause.

He was sentenced in March 2016 to 15 years in prison with hard labor. His family said it was told he had been in a coma since soon after his sentencing.

He is the first American to die after being released from North Korean custody in half a century.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Follow the story at Fox 19.

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