WHEN THREE-TIME world surfing champion Andy Irons was found dead on Tuesday, November 2, in a Dallas hotel room, the news reverberated far beyond the sport's core of devoted fans and followers. The second was the date of crucial midterm elections throughout the United States, but the most frequent Google search that day was for a person who had nothing to do with politics: Andy Irons. His passing was covered by hundreds of media outlets all over the planet, a clear measure of the impact Irons had during his amazing athletic career.
It wasn't as clear what had killed him. Two days before his death, Irons, 32, had withdrawn from pro surfing's World Tour contest near Isabela, Puerto Rico, electing to fly home to Kauai, Hawaii, to be with his wife, Lyndie, who was eight months pregnant with their first child—a boy. During a layover at the Dallas/Fort Worth airport on the morning of November 1, Irons skipped his connecting flight to Honolulu and instead checked in to DFW's Grand Hyatt hotel, crashing in his room. He didn't respond to wake-up calls the next morning, and Hyatt employees, worried that something was wrong, entered the room and discovered his lifeless body in bed.
Irons's family, together with his primary sponsor, Billabong, quickly released a statement saying that the surfer had "reportedly been battling with dengue fever," a mosquito-borne disease they said he'd picked up at the Association of Surfing Professionals' October stop in Peniche, Portugal. From the outset, though, the dengue-fever explanation seemed unlikely as the sole culprit. Several surfers came down with the flu after Portugal, but no medical evidence was presented that Irons had dengue, which is fatal to only 1 percent of the people it afflicts. "I've had dengue fever," says one professional surfer who knew Irons. "You don't die from it unless you're in a Third World country."
What killed Irons is still unknown, and in the aftermath of his death, there was nothing to go on other than hints that he'd been taking prescription medications in his final hours. The Tarrant County Medical Examiner performed an autopsy on November 3 but didn't state a cause of death, pending a toxicology report that isn't expected until early December. When police searched Irons's hotel room, they found two prescription bottles labeled as the generic forms of the anti-anxiety drug Xanax and the sleep aid Ambien. And a report in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser quoted a medical examiner as saying that the prescription drug methadone—used to treat addiction to heroin and opiate-based pharmaceuticals like OxyContin, and given more rarely for pain—had also been found inside the Ambien bottle. A spokesperson for the examiner's office denied this comment, but the Star-Advertiser stood by its report.
NONE OF THESE FACTS add up to anything definite, and the cause of Irons's death won't be known until medical officials issue their findings. But this much is now clear: Irons had battled with alcohol- and drug-abuse issues throughout his adult life, and on at least one occasion nearly died as a result, during a 1999 binge-drinking episode in Indonesia. As Outside has learned through interviews with dozens of friends, colleagues, and surf-industry professionals who were close to Irons, his problems were common knowledge in the insular world of pro surfing, but they were kept under wraps by an unspoken but understood code of public silence. After Irons's death, several of these people decided it was time for the surf world to face facts. Still, fearing reprisal, a few sources requested anonymity.
Many people confirmed Irons's drug and alcohol abuse, though when it came to narcotics, nobody could say precisely what he took or how often. Most sources described a mix of prescription and recreational drugs, noting that, while they never saw him consume them, their effects were obvious. But if Irons practiced discretion, he ignored moderation. On July 24, 1999, he nearly drank himself to death at the Bumi Minang hotel, in Padang, Indonesia.
"He basically died on us, more than once," said Art Brewer, the 59-year-old elder statesman of surf photography, who traveled with Irons and a half-dozen pros on the 1999 trip to the Mentawais, an Indonesian island chain. Twelve days after Irons's death, Brewer agreed to meet at his studio in Dana Point, California, to tell his story publicly for the first time. From the outset of this interview, he was careful to point out that he didn't see Irons ingest anything other than alcohol. But whatever was in his system, Irons had consumed too much of it, lapsing into a state of unconsciousness during which he appeared to stop breathing or have a pulse for a three-minute period.
"It was Andy's 21st birthday," said Brewer, who has known Irons's family for 40 years. Irons and the surfing crew had returned to port in Padang from the Mentawais, and Andy "started out drinking. I saw half a quart of Jack Daniel's that had been drunk." Brewer drifted off to his room, but at 10 P.M. he was roused by a surfer who said he had to come quickly: Irons was in trouble. "I went to the room," said Brewer, "and Andy was blue."