New details emerge on race to save Otto Warmbier

New details are being reported about the secret efforts to secure the release of American college student Otto Warmbier, who suffered brain damage and died after being held captive in North Korea for 15 months after an ill-fated trip to the country in 2015.

According to a lengthy article published in GQ’s August issue, President Trump signed off on the secret State Department mission in June 2017 to send an American plane to North Korea to retrieve Warmbier after learning the University of Virginia student was unconscious.

“Take care of Otto,” Trump reportedly told then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. 

According to the account, North Korea was "unilaterally informed" that the American plane carrying diplomats and doctors would be landing in Pyongyang for the mission. 

Warmbier’s parents still held out hope their son was asleep or in a medically induced coma, GQ reported, even after told by their home state senator, Republican Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, that he appeared to have severe brain damage.

But when his parents met the plane carrying their son at an airport in Cincinnati, they were shocked at what they saw: A vegetative Warmbier was howling “inhuman” sounds as he jerked violently against the straps of his stretcher. His eyes were open, but he was not communicative.

Doctors could not determine what caused the injury. But the theories began to spread that Warmbier had been tortured while in captivity – theories embraced by his parents and the president himself.

The New York Times was first to cite an anonymous official in June 2017 to report that the government “obtained intelligence reports in recent weeks indicating that Mr. Warmbier had been repeatedly beaten while in North Korean custody.”

Speaking to Fox News in September 2017, Warmbier’s father Fred described seeing his son in the vegetative state and said, “It looked like someone had taken a pair of pliers and re-arranged his bottom teeth.”

Trump tweeted that same day: “Otto was tortured beyond belief by North Korea.”

But the GQ article cited a coroner’s report and quotes from intelligence experts to cast doubt on the claims. A coroner who examined Warmbier, Lakshmi Kode Sammarco, said she observed “no obvious signs of torture.”

“Of the dozen experts I spoke to, only a single one thought there was even a remote likelihood that he had been beaten,” journalist Doug Bock Clark wrote in the GQ piece.

Clark also said a senior-level American official told him, “In general, the intel reports were wrong, as the medical examinations have shown.”  

Asked Tuesday by Fox News whether the administration believes Warmbier was tortured, a State Department spokesman told Fox News: "We hold North Korea accountable for Otto Warmbier’s unjust imprisonment."

The GQ article said the Warmbiers declined to comment for the story. Fox News attempted to reach the family Tuesday through McGuire Woods, the Virginia law firm that has represented the family, but has not heard back.

In June, after his historic summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Trump said the meeting between the two leaders may not have happened if not for the death of Warmbier.

“Otto did not die in vain,” Trump said.

Warmbier’s parents responded by saying they hope “something positive” can come from the summit.

“We appreciate President Trump's recent comments about our family,” Fred and Cindy Warmbier said in a statement. “We are proud of Otto and miss him. Hopefully something positive can come from this.”

Alex Pappas is a politics reporter at FoxNews.com. Follow him on Twitter at @AlexPappas.