WYOMING, Ohio — The crowd outside the Wyoming Civic Center Thursday clapped. They shouted "We love you!" and "Otto strong!"
The 'Otto' was Otto Warmbier, a 22-year-old graduate of Wyoming High School who had been returned home earlier this week by North Korea — in a coma. Otto Warmbier's father had just held a press conference about his son's imprisonment — his son had been "brutalized," he said — and now Fred Warmbier was about to drive past the throng.
Then something unexpected happened.
Warmbier stepped out of the black Chevrolet Tahoe.
The crowd of residents tightened around him, still clapping and shouting “We love you!” Otto’s siblings, Greta and Austin, stepped out of the car too, and community members rushed to hug them.
“I’m honored that our community loves Otto and we love you,” Warmbier said to the crowd. “You’ve been so supportive of us throughout this whole ordeal.”
Warmbier, who owns a metal-finishing company, said for the last 18 months the family had kept mostly quiet, keeping a low profile in hopes of protecting their son.
“But that’s over now, and Otto’s home with us,” Warmbier said, and the crowd applauded over his voice. Some in the crowd smiled; others wiped away tears.
Assembled via social media, email and phone calls, a crowd of close to 200 Wyoming residents gathered that morning to watch a livestream of Fred Warmbier's press conference.
They laughed when he brushed off a question about Dennis Rodman and cried when he choked up. When the press conference ended, people hurried outside to line Springfield Pike outside the civic center, where the Warmbier family would drive by.
The street was lined with blue and white ribbons tied around trees and utility poles — another show of support for the Warmbiers.
The city of about 8,400, just north of Cincinnati, came together to show solidarity, both with the family’s joy that their son has arrived home, and their pain when they learned he would arrive in a coma. During the press conference, a doctor from the University of Cincinnati Medical Center said Otto Warmbier had suffered “severe neurological damage.”
When Lisa Bernheisel, an associate pastor at a church in Wyoming, heard the news that Otto Warmbier was returning home, she knew she wanted to be there to support the family.
“We've been holding (Otto) in prayer throughout these 18 months that he's been imprisoned,” Bernheisel said. “With all the people I know who know him, I needed to be present at this time.”
She said she had conflicting emotions about his return: “Joy that he would be able to be with his family again, and sadness on all that has unfolded.”
Wyoming City Schools Superintendent Susan Lang echoed the sentiment. She said Otto Warmbier was a rigorous academic — he graduated as salutatorian from Wyoming High School — as well as engaged around school, where he was a star on the soccer team.
“My heart is painfully hurting because of the situation, but I think about Otto and I think there couldn't be a better representative of public schools than Otto Warmbier,” Lang said. “When I think about Otto, I think about his family, and I couldn't speak of a better representative of being engaged. They don't talk it, they walk it. They're engaged in their children's lives in the right way.”
Before Otto Warmbier returned home, the Warmbiers kept a low profile, hoping that avoiding the spotlight could help bring their son home. The city tried to respect that, Wyoming City Council member Jenni McCauley said.
“The way all the residents have responded — the city, the schools, everything we've done to make them comfortable throughout this tragic, but wonderful, homecoming,” McCauley said. “We're just waiting to hear what that is and then what the family would like to do. We'll continue to give support in any way that we can.”
Wyoming has united around the Warmbiers, and they’ll stay united around the Warmbiers.
“This community doesn't always agree on things, but they come together and they're united as one. America should look at Wyoming as a model, because we are a great country,” Lang said. “God bless Otto, God bless his family, God bless this community.”