WYOMING, Ohio — Wearing the jacket his son Otto Warmbier wore at the sham trial that ended with his imprisonment in North Korea, Fred Warmbier denounced the “pariah” regime that had brutalized his son and fought back tears Thursday as he talked about kneeling to hug him when he was returned to the United States in a coma.
“The fact that he was taken and treated this way is horrible,” Fred Warmbier said. “They’re brutal and they’re terroristic. We see the results of their actions, with Otto.”
Otto Warmbier is in stable condition but has suffered a severe neurological injury, Kelly Martin of the University of Cincinnati Medical Center told reporters at the news conference Thursday.
Warmbier, 22, a student at the University of Virginia, had been detained in North Korea for 17 months and had no contact with the outside world for much of that time. Earlier this month, U.S. officials learned that he had been in a coma for more than a year, news that triggered an onslaught of diplomatic pressure for his release. He was medically evacuated and reunited with his family Tuesday.
His ordeal could escalate tensions between the United States and North Korea. But on Thursday, Fred Warmbier told of the personal toll it has taken, and the profound sense of relief that he and his family feel at no longer having to think about potential reaction from North Korean officials to everything from their words to the blue and white ribbons his neighbors tied to trees in this small city near Cincinnati to show their support for the family.
He spoke at Wyoming High School, where Otto Warmbier was salutatorian in 2013.
“This is a place where Otto experienced some of the best moments of his young life,” Fred Warmbier said, with two of his son’s former teachers at his side. His wife, Cindy Warmbier, was with their son at the hospital, he said, as she has been since he arrived home Tuesday night.
He thanked the people who supported the family through the 18-month ordeal with their thoughts and prayers, and those who helped get his son home, especially Trump administration officials.
About 10 p.m. Wednesday, President Trump called him, he said, asking how Otto was doing and urging him to take care of himself. “It was gracious,” he said. “It was nice.” He said the president told him that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and others had worked hard to free his son, and that he was sorry about his condition.
Asked whether he felt that the Obama administration had not done enough to help, Fred Warmbier said, “I think the results speak for themselves.”
Warmbier said he wanted to highlight the bittersweet relief that his son is now home in the arms of those who love him — and anger that he was so brutally treated for so long.
The family went 15 months without a word from their son, he said, only to find out a week ago that he was in a coma all of that time. Even if people believe the North Koreans’ explanation — “and we don’t,” he said — “there is no excuse for any civilized nation” to have kept his condition a secret and denied him medical care for so long.
When news broke Tuesday morning that Otto Warmbier would be coming home, after a year and a half of detention in North Korea, blue and white ribbons began appearing on trees in his home town. By noon, the entire stretch of the main street, shaded by branches arching overhead, had ribbons on every tree and every utility pole, hundreds and hundreds of them.
Support rises quickly, organically and quietly in this close-knit suburb of Cincinnati, said Lynn Tetley, the city manager. People take care of one another. And at a time when people were torn between extremes of joy and sorrow — the eldest son of a longtime local family was free, but they had just learned he had been in a coma for more than a year — they wanted a way to show the Warmbiers that they are loved.
Caught in the middle of a story fraught with international animosity, at a time of intense national polarization, Wyoming is holding on to something simple: neighborliness.
Wyoming has a throwback feel, with big porches, rocking chairs and wicker sofas with plump pillows, hydrangeas bursting with blooms. There are Victorian houses with the trim picked out in bright colors, a stately brick middle school and dive-in movie nights at the city swimming pool. There are no crime alerts posted, but there is a curfew for teenagers and information about coyotes. The pastry shop has been there since 1934, the cashier at the meat market told a customer in scrubs, “Have a great trip, doc!” as she walked out, and the Independence Day parade has no politicians, just kids decorating their bikes, performing skits and building floats.
The 8,400 residents volunteer so many hours that the city literally has to turn people away, Tetley said, from civic boards and committees and events.
There are many families who have lived here for generations, as well as newcomers, doctors and professors and others often drawn by the reputation of the public schools. All the students at the small schools are Wyoming residents, kids who grow up together as neighbors and classmates.
So when one of their own experienced something unthinkable, Wyoming pulled in close.
“We’re all just focused now on providing privacy and any assistance we can to the family,” Tetley said. “We’re continuing to pray. Everyone wants so desperately for this situation to turn out well.”
Otto Warmbier was homecoming king and captain of the soccer team at Wyoming High. At the University of Virginia, he had a prestigious scholarship designed for the most “intellectually curious” students, a phrase that his friends said described him well. He had a rare sense of discipline, with a clearly delineated path to a future career in finance complete with a summer at the London School of Economics under his belt, enough credits to graduate as a sophomore, and, as a junior, the summer internship he wanted locked in by the fall.
“If he had an assignment, he could sit down for 15 hours and focus on it and get it done,” his father said last month. “That was his gift.”
Once the work was done, friends said, he could be just as intensely fun, coming up with schemes, laughing loudly, surprising them with odd but strangely perfect gifts from thrift stores, making everyone feel just how delighted he was to see them.
He had their backs.
And he wanted to see the world.
Warmbier had planned to visit North Korea for five days on his way to Hong Kong for a study-abroad trip with U-Va.
He has received plenty of criticism from people who felt he should have had the common sense to stay away from a hostile country entirely. The actual repercussions were brutal: He was charged with “hostile acts against the state” and, in a semblance of a trial, sentenced to 15 years of hard labor.
Fred Warmbier said North Korea lures American tourists to the country with tour groups that post slick ads online proclaiming it’s a safe place to visit, and then “they take them hostage.” That’s what happened to his son, he said.
Otto Warmbier’s last contact with the outside world was on March 2 of last year.
It was soon after the sham trial, apparently, that the athletic young student lapsed into a coma.
U.S. officials were not told about his condition for more than a year. The news triggered a swift response. Joseph Yun, the State Department’s special representative for North Korea, helped secure his evacuation this week.
A Gulfstream jet thundered onto a tarmac in Cincinnati late Tuesday night, and his family went on board to see him before he was carried out and rushed to the hospital.
On Wednesday, Wyoming waited.
Children still clambered into emergency vehicles, honked horns and got sprayed by a firetruck hose at the city recreation center at a truck-touch event. Men mowed lawns. People played tennis at the city courts, watered their petunias, walked their dogs and babies, swam at the city pool, brought their kids to the civic center for a toy-brick-building festival in the evening.
But a small sign outside the civic center expressed the undercurrent: “Wyoming’s thoughts and prayers are with the Warmbier family.”
On Wednesday evening, a car slowed on a nearby block and the driver called out, “What are those for?” to people tying blue and white ribbons, the school colors, to trees.
“For Otto Warmbier!” a teenage boy answered.
“Thank you for doing that,” the man answered.
A woman with the group said they were showing support for the family; they didn’t want to intrude at such a difficult time, and certainly didn’t want to be quoted by name. They just wanted the Warmbiers to see how many prayers were rising in the community, as they wait for news of his health.
Around another bend, a little before 7 p.m. as the sun was lowering into Wyoming’s leafy canopy, a woman and three children parked a van and jumped out. Tree by tree, pole by pole, they looped and knotted, looped and knotted. Then on to the next street, blue and white ribbons in hand.
That night, city officials decided to open up the civic center to live-stream the news conference so people in Wyoming could hear Fred Warmbier speak. Through word of mouth and social media, more than 300 gathered there Thursday morning, listening as he choked up and spoke directly to his son: “I love you, and I’m so crazy about you. I’m so glad you’re home.”
Tetley drove the family home from the news conference. A crowd lined the main street through town, holding their hands up in the Wyoming “W” shape, a high school cheer meant to show their respect for the Warmbiers.
The family got out. Fred Warmbier hugged some people, and there were “tears by everybody here,” Tetley said. “The family is just an incredible, beloved family.”