The girlfriend of Otto Warmbier, the American student who died this week just days after being released from a North Korean prison, paid tribute to him as an adventurous spirit who made her life “all the more beautiful and worth living.”
“He was my soul mate on so many levels and I truly believe that he helped me become a better human being, the person that I am today,” Alex Vagonis told a group of students Tuesday at the University of Virginia, from where Warmbier would have graduated this year.
The Ohio native, 22, had been visiting North Korea as part of a tourist group in January 2016 when he was arrested for allegedly stealing a propaganda poster from his hotel. He was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor.
On June 13, North Korea released Warmbier in a comatose state. The government claimed he contracted botulism and then took a sleeping pill that led to his coma.
But doctors at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center, where he was eventually flown upon his release, found no traces of active botulism.
They said Warmbier remained in a state of “unresponsive wakefulness” until he died Monday.
Warmbier was formally laid to rest Thursday in his home town of Wyoming, Ohio.
Just two days earlier, his friends organized a vigil attended by hundreds at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.
Vagonis, who dated Warmbier for more than a year before he left for North Korea, recalled how the two met at a party at Warmbier’s apartment, where she noticed his “insane” tie collection.
“We clicked instantly and the whirlwind of our growing relationship just took off from there,” she said.
“It was not just my life he made more colorful, but everyone else’s,” she said. “Every person who had the privilege of interacting with him even just temporarily everyone felt the same magnetic affects of his presence.”
Vagonis urged the audience to remember the three remaining Americans held captive in North Korea.
She also encouraged everyone to support each other in the days ahead.
“Now, we persevere,” she said. “We will all get through this and we will thrive. To do otherwise would be an insult to Otto, knowing that he always wanted to see others fly.”