Andy Irons Is Still Larger Than Life

Andy Irons and the author in 2004 at Kilohana. Photo from Duane Shimogawa

He’ll be known forever as one of the greatest surfers of all time and perhaps the best to come out of Kaua’i’s waters, and that’s saying something.

Andy Irons was 32 years old when he was found dead Nov. 2 in a Texas hotel room.

He was on his way back to Hawaii, after pulling out of a World Championship Tour event in Puerto Rico because of sickness.

Rumors ran rampant about how the Hanalei native died, including the likes of drug overdose, a heart issue and complications from dengue fever.

All eyes were focused on the autopsy.

But to allow Andy’s widow Lyndie, who was then eight months’ pregnant with their son, to give birth in peace, an injunction was filed in December. Results weren’t expected until June 20. But on June 8, a copy of Irons’ autopsy report was released to The New York Times by a publicist from the Irons family. The mystery of how Irons died has now been revealed.

The autopsy, from the Tarrant County District Attorney’s Office in Fort Worth, Texas, concludes that Irons died a natural death from a sudden cardiac arrest because of a severe blockage of a main artery of the heart.

Dr. Vincent Di Maio, a forensic pathologist in San Antonio, Texas, who has consulted on many high-profile cases, was asked to review and explain the autopsy results to the family.

“This is a very straightforward case,” Di Maio said. “Mr. Irons died of a heart attack due to focal severe coronary atherosclerosis, i.e., ‘hardening of the arteries.’ He had an atherosclerotic plaque producing 70 percent to 80 percent narrowing of his anterior descending coronary artery.”

Di Maio added that this was very severe narrowing, and a plaque of this severity, located in the anterior descending coronary artery, is commonly associated with sudden death.

“The only unusual aspect of the case is Mr. Irons’ age,” Di Maio said. “Deaths due to coronary atherosclerosis usually begin to appear in the late 40s. Individuals such as Mr. Irons have a genetic predisposition to early development of coronary artery disease. In about 25 percent of the population, the first symptom of severe coronary atherosclerosis is sudden death.”

In conclusion, Di Maio said, “there were no other factors contributing to the death.”

However, the official autopsy report by Tarrant County chief medical examiner Dr. Nizam Peerwani, paints a different picture.

Peerwani lists a second cause of death as “acute mixed drug ingestion.”

In a letter sent to Arch McColl, a Dallas-based attorney acting on behalf of the family, Di Maio questioned Peerwani’s decision to list the finding “acute mixed drug ingestion’ under “cause of death” because he believes “it was not the cause of death and did not contribute to the death. The manner of death is in fact labeled natural.”

“Dr. Di Maio goes on to say that the drugs cited, Alprazolam (Xanax) and methadone (an analgesic drug commonly used in the treatment of chronic pain), are in ‘therapeutic levels,’ and notes that benzoylecgonine is an ‘inactive metabolite,’ which Dr. Gary H. Wimbish, a forensic toxicologist consulted by the family, has explained is a breakdown product of cocaine,” the Irons family statement said.

“Wimbish states that the benzoylecgonine present in Andy’s blood at 50 ng/ml “is consistent with the use of cocaine at about 30 hours prior to his death.”

In addition, Wimbish agrees with Di Maio that the amount of Alprazolam present in Andy’s blood “is consistent with a common therapeutic regimen.”

Peerwani’s report also cites the presence of a trace amount of methampheta-mine. “Lyndie insists Andy was not a methamphetamine user, so it is likely the substance was present in the cocaine he ingested,” the family said. “But again, Dr. Di Maio believes that none of these drugs was the cause of, or contributed to, Andy’s death.

“As we are not doctors, we have no choice but to accept that two respected pathologists have come to different conclusions about a secondary contributing cause of death.”

However, they addressed the findings of prescription and non-prescription drugs in Andy’s system by saying that he was prescribed Xanax and Zolpidem (Ambien) to treat anxiety and occasional insomnia – a result of a bipolar disorder diagnosed by his family doctor at age 18.

“This is when Andy first began experiencing episodes of manic highs and depressive lows,” the family said.

They believe Andy was in some denial about the severity of his chemical imbalance and tended to blame his mood swings on himself and his own weaknesses, choosing to self-medicate with recreational drugs.

Members of his family, close friends and an industry sponsor intervened over the years to help Andy get clean, but the effort to find balance in his life was certainly complicated by his chemical makeup.

“Andy was suffering from severe flu-like symptoms while in Puerto Rico to compete in the Rip Curl Pro Search leg of the ASP World Tour just days prior to his death,” the family said.

They went on to say that he “was unable to leave his bed and for the first time in his professional career, withdrew from a contest. He was put on an intravenous drip for hydration and strongly advised to seek further medical treatment. Against doctor’s advice, Andy left for Kaua’i to be with his wife, telling the doctor: “I just wanna go home.”

The family added, “though Andy’s illness is not addressed in the autopsy (which only tested for and ruled out suspected dengue fever), Andy’s weakened condition clearly contributed to the tragic circumstances of his death, adding more stress to an already gravely compromised heart.”

They say that “having defied the odds so many times before, Andy may have felt that getting on a plane while dehydrated and wracked with fever and choosing to meet up with acquaintances during a short layover in Miami was nothing out of the ordinary.”

“But traveling while sick and suffering from an undiagnosed heart condition, was more than even Andy could overcome. We are hoping that people will remember Andy for his very full life, which included his intense passion for surfing and the ocean, his astonishing achievements as a world-class athlete and his devotion to the family and friends who love him dearly and miss him every day,” the family said in its statement.

For those who wish to honor Andy’s memory, consider making a donation to the Surfrider Foundation, a charity Andy supported, at surfrider.org.

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