Otto Warmbier’s roommate in North Korea has spoken out for the first time — and chillingly recalls his last words to the 22-year-old college student, who was released from imprisonment in North Korea in a coma on Tuesday.
Danny Gratton told the Washington Post he met Warmbier in Beijing in Dec. 2015 on a tour to North Korea. The pair quickly struck up a friendship, and Gratton, a sales manager in his mid-40s from England, says he was the only Westerner to see Warmbier detained by security services at Pyongyang International Airport.
“No words were spoken. Two guards just come over and simply tapped Otto on the shoulder and led him away,” Gratton said. “I just said kind of quite nervously, ‘Well, that’s the last we’ll see of you.’ There’s a great irony in those words.”
Gratton says he and Warmbier were among the last people to go through security at Pyongyang International Airport on that morning. Two security officials stopped and took Warmbier to a private room.
“That was it. That was the last physical time I saw Otto, ever,” Gratton said. “I was also the only person to see Otto taken away. Otto didn’t resist. He didn’t look scared. He sort of half-smiled.”
The group landed in Beijing Capital International Airport, but when their tour guide called a colleague, who was with Warmbier still in North Korea, he said he couldn’t travel because he felt ill.
The University of Virginia student was later sentenced to 15 years of prison and hard labor for allegedly stealing a political propaganda poster from his Pyongyang hotel in Jan. 2016.
North Korea reportedly told a U.S. official that Otto contracted botulism while detained and slipped into the coma after taking a sleeping pill. He suffered a “severe neurological injury,” a University of Cincinnati Medical Center spokeswoman revealed Thursday.
“Otto was just a really great lad who fell into the most horrendous situation that no one could ever believe,” Gratton told the Post. “It’s just something I think in the Western world we just can’t understand, we just can’t grasp, the evilness behind that dictatorship.”
The two quickly bonded on their four-day, three-night tour with Young Pioneers Tours, a Chinese company that markets itself as providing “budget travel to destinations your mother would rather you stayed away from,” reports the publication.
Warmbier was planning to be in the country for a five-day stay before flying to Beijing to participate in a 10-day tour of two Asian financial capitals, Hong Kong and Singapore, sponsored by his school: University of Virginia.
“When we got to Pyongyang, we were the two single guys, so it seemed logical for us to be put in the same room,” Gratton said. “So basically from the time we got to Pyongyang to the time I left him, we were together.
“I got to know Otto really, really well. He was such a mature lad for his age.”
RELATED VIDEO: North Korea Releases Jailed American Student Otto Warmbier
Warmbier was arrested on Jan. 2, 2016, while trying to board a plane out of North Korea. He was charged with “hostile acts against the state” after allegedly attempting to take down a large propaganda sign lauding the regime in a staff area of his hotel in Pyongyang. His alleged crime took place on their second night in Pyongyang, the Post reports.
Gratton told the newspaper he didn’t see Warmbier commit the alleged theft — and saw no evidence that Warmbier was planning any such act.
“I’ve got nothing from my experiences with him that would suggest he would do something like that,” he told the publication. “At no stage did I ever think he was anything but a very, very polite kid.”
Although the two weren’t together at all times, they traveled during the day and spent time with each other at night.
At a news conference Thursday morning in his home state of Ohio, Otto Warmbier’s father, Fred Warmbier, said there’s “no excuse” for North Korea’s treatment of his son.
“Otto, I love you and I’m so crazy about you, I’m so glad you’re home, you are such a great guy,” Fred said through tears during the press conference. “My family has been rock solid throughout this, we have supported one another.”
Gratton, meanwhile, is aghast at what happened to his friend.
“No one deserves that. He was just a young lad who wanted a bit of adventure,” Gratton told the Post. “Every once in a while they single out someone to make a point, and this was just Otto’s turn. It’s so sick and warped and unnecessary and evil.”