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Funeral Held For Former North Korean Prisoner Otto Warmbier

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The town of Wyoming, Ohio, is in mourning today. Family and friends buried the American college student who was recently released from North Korea. Otto Warmbier had returned home in a coma and died just days later. Ann Thompson reports from member station WVXU.

ANN THOMPSON, BYLINE: Thousands of people filed into Wyoming High School. But despite overflow areas in the cafeteria and gym where mourners watched on monitors, many were turned away at the door. David Weinrich was one of them. And as he walked away, he was thinking about Otto Warmbier, who was thrust into the international spotlight when detained in North Korea for allegedly stealing a propaganda poster.

DAVID WEINRICH: He was nice to everybody. He'd come up to anybody, talk to them no matter who you were, always had a smile on his face, had people laughing. He was athletic, smart. He was such a great, amazing person.

THOMPSON: Warmbier was on a tour in January 2016 when he was imprisoned and eventually sentenced to 15 years of hard labor. Shortly after that, doctors say he fell into a coma and was returned to the U.S. last week with massive brain tissue loss. So heartbreaking, says Betty Waite, Warmbier's kindergarten soccer coach. She was at his graduation.

BETTY WAITE: I sat and listened to his salutatorian speech and thought, this kid's going somewhere. And it's just a tragic loss to the entire universe that this happened.

THOMPSON: Every couple of months Waite did Google searches, hoping to see positive developments. So did Kay Vong. She can't imagine what Warmbier's parents have gone through.

KAY VONG: When they found out, you know, he passed away it really broke my heart. Like, I was hoping for a miracle.

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THOMPSON: As pallbearers carried Warmbier's casket out to the hearse people outside Wyoming High School stood in silence. His classmates hugged and cried. Many of them lined the street as the procession pulled out.

MINDY NEMOFF: It's hard to talk about it.

THOMPSON: Mindy Nemoff is a friend and classmate of Warmbier's mother and reconnected just before the 22-year-old went on that North Korean trip. She says the funeral was short and emotional.

NEMOFF: There was four classmates from the University of Virginia that spoke, including his girlfriend. And there was also both his brother and his sister that spoke.

THOMPSON: The U.S. diplomat who traveled to North Korea to secure Warmbier's release, Joseph Yun, was at the funeral. And so was Ohio Senator Rob Portman, who had harsh words for the country that detained Warmbier.

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ROB PORTMAN: North Korea needs to be held accountable for what happened to Otto Warmbier. They have shown not only do they not have regard for the rule of law, the Geneva Convention, the basic freedoms that we enjoy and so many other people around the world enjoy, but they've shown through their treatment of Otto a disregard for basic human rights, for human dignity.

THOMPSON: Portman says the next step is tightening sanctions for North Korea. For NPR News, I'm Ann Thompson in Cincinnati.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE WALKMEN SONG, "LINE BY LINE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.