Otto Warmbier Dies Days After Release From North Korea

Jun 19, 2017
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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Otto Warmbier has died. The American college student returned to the U.S. last week in a coma after being held by North Korea for more than a year. He was 22 years old. Ann Thompson of member station WVXU in Cincinnati has been covering this story. And, Ann, to begin, the family released a statement this afternoon with the news that their son had died. What did it say?

ANN THOMPSON, BYLINE: The one-page statement talked about his love for life. It criticized the treatment when he was held in North Korea and thanked the U.S. doctors who treated him, and mentioned how he was at peace when he died. And some of the comments include - his parents, Fred and Cindy Warmbier, say, 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, they say, whose curiosity and enthusiasm for life knew no bounds. But they say, we choose to focus on the time we were given to be with this remarkable person.

And finally, it says that when he arrived in Cincinnati June 13 he was unable to speak, see, react to verbal commands and looked very uncomfortable, they say almost anguished. But within a day the countenance of his face changed and he was at peace.

CORNISH: Yet the North Korean regime apparently kept secret for more than a year that Otto was in a coma. What did his family learn after he came to the U.S. about what happened to him?

THOMPSON: So a week prior to their son's landing, they learned that - at least, the official statement from North Korea was that he had contracted botulism and then, after taking a sleeping pill, fell into a coma. At a news conference this week, University of Cincinnati doctors examined him. They say that there was no evidence of botulism. They say that, in fact, he had a respiratory event or was deprived of oxygen for some time and possibly through an overdose of medication. But it certainly was not botulism, as the North Koreans said.

CORNISH: President Trump spoke about Otto Warmbier's death this afternoon. Here's that audio.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I just wanted to pass on word that Otto Warmbier has just passed away. He spent a year and a half in North Korea. A lot of bad things happened. But at least we got him home to be with his parents.

CORNISH: What's been the reaction from officials in the state?

THOMPSON: So from Ohio Senator Rob Portman, who has been very close to the family, he says that Otto Warmbier was such a promising young man. He was kind, generous and accomplished, and had all the talent you could ever ask for and a bright future ahead of him. And says his passing today is a loss for Ohio and for all of us. From Senator Sherrod Brown, who says, our hearts are broken for Otto's family and everyone who knew and loved him, says that he and his wife are praying for Fred and Cindy Warmbier, whose grace in the face of this unthinkable grief is truly remarkable, says the strength and love of their family continues to inspire us all.

CORNISH: That's Ann Thompson of member station WVXU. Thank you for your reporting.

THOMPSON: You're welcome.

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