09/14/2009 at 01:00 AM EDT
Just 11 months ago, Adam Goldstein jumped through a wall of flames to survive a Learjet crash; two of his friends didn't make it out alive. That harrowing Sept. 19 experience left Goldstein—better known by his deejay name DJ AM—covered in severe burns and keenly aware how lucky he was. "I live my life to the fullest," he told PEOPLE in October 2008, "[because] I don't know how much longer I'm going to be around."
Only weeks before the anniversary of the crash, Goldstein, 36, was found dead in his New York City apartment Aug. 28. Having ended his relationship with his model girlfriend Hayley Wood earlier in the week, Goldstein Tweeted an ominous Grandmaster Flash lyric on Aug. 25: "New York, New York, big city of dreams/ And everything in New York ain't always what it seems." When a friend was unable to reach him Friday before a flight to Las Vegas for a weekly gig, he called 911. The police found the recovering drug addict (in July he said he'd been sober for more than 11 years) in bed with a half-used bag of crack cocaine, two pipes and prescription pills near-by. Friends say that Goldstein, whose cause of death is unknown, was not heartbroken over his breakup, but that the survivor's guilt and post-traumatic stress disorder he battled as a result of the crash may have contributed to a relapse. "His death," says one friend, "was the direct result of the plane crash."
Goldstein's sudden death marked the end of a resilient life. His father, Hank, "seemed to hate me," he told Glamour in 2008 of his childhood in Philadelphia. "The verbal abuse he subjected me to was incredibly cruel." Depressed, Goldstein started smoking marijuana at age 12. "It became my identity," he told PEOPLE in 2005. By 16, he was addicted to Ecstasy and cocaine and failing in school. With support from his mom, he checked into a Michigan rehab facility until he was 18.
Once clean, Goldstein returned to L.A. to become a deejay—a dream he had nursed since watching Herbie Hancock perform at the 1984 Grammys. He made a name for himself at the Boiler Room, an after-hours club in Hollywood. Soon he was sought after by club owners such as Noel Ashman, who says, "He had an incredible knack for music. He could take hip-hop and mix it with Neil Diamond and Metallica and make it work."
A new star on the nightlife scene, Goldstein seemed intent on self-destruction. He ballooned to more than 300 lbs. from binge eating and was smoking crack. "I'd go in the bathroom, break [my pipe] on the toilet and swear to never do it again," he told PEOPLE in 2005. "I couldn't look at myself in the mirror. All I saw was a loser." At rock bottom in 1998, Goldstein attempted to shoot himself, but the gun jammed. The next day, a friend took him to Alcoholics Anonymous and helped him get clean. Even years later "he went to [meetings] every day," says a pal. "He lived and breathed his sobriety."
Over the next few years, his career soared: He opened club LAX in L.A. and had regular gigs in Las Vegas clubs. (His love life did too: During a gig at Gisele Bündchen's Malibu home in 2003, he hit it off with Nicole Richie
, to whom he was engaged until they amicably broke it off.) After he racked up almost 2 million frequent flyer miles, his jet-setting lifestyle changed forever with that fateful crash on the way home to L.A. last September.
Surrounded by a tight network of friends, including fellow survivor Travis Barker and ex-girlfriend Mandy Moore
, Goldstein returned to work a month later. He worked closely with nurses and a behavioral modification specialist to prevent his pain meds from jeopardizing his sobriety. Still haunted, he filed a lawsuit for pain, suffering, mental anguish and psychological and emotional distress.
Those emotional scars may have paved the way for a relapse. "Having severe anxiety and PTSD that involves reliving the trauma increases cravings for drugs," says addiction specialist Dr. David Sack. Close friends say he showed no signs of slipping, but this summer he filmed Gone Too Far, an MTV series in which he worked with drug addicts and confronted his biggest demon: crack. Describing a segment in which he held a crack pipe for the first time in more than a decade, Goldstein said, "My palms were sweaty. I was like, 'This is not smart for me to be holding this.'"
He may have been right. Friends are finding solace in knowing that Goldstein spent his final days doing what he loved: trying to help other addicts and bringing clubs alive with his electrifying sets. "He was having the time of his life, smiling, laughing and never missing a beat," recalls pal and business partner Eric Millstein of his Aug. 25 gig at Dusk, their new Atlantic City club. Adds longtime pal Stacey Wechsler: "He was in pain from the accident, but he was happy to be alive. He was always looking for peace. And maybe he's found it."
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