Adam Goldstein—best known as DJ AM—couldn’t wait to get back to his cat Muggsy in Los Angeles after a two-week European tour and a Sept. 19 concert in Columbia, S.C., with former blink-182 drummer Travis Barker. But the private Learjet hired to take the men home never reached its destination. In an accident still under investigation, officials suspect a blown tire caused the plane to ignite during takeoff and hurtle into an embankment in a mass of flames, leaving Goldstein, 35, and Barker, 32, with second- and third-degree burns. Barker’s personal assistant Lil’ Chris Baker, 29, and bodyguard Charles “Che” Still, 25, as well as the pilot and copilot, did not survive.
The deejay spent four days in a burn center in Augusta, Ga., then was driven to L.A., where he had two skin-graft surgeries on his neck and left arm. In his first interview since the crash, he shares his stunning survival story with People. Says Goldstein: “I am the luckiest man alive.”
I have no problem flying. I have almost 2 million frequent-flier miles. The day before, I flew from New York to South Carolina, where I met Travis. It was a good show, and we planned to fly back to L.A. that night. When the plane was on the runway, I took my shoes off and fell asleep.
The next thing I remember is us crashing into something. I woke up to Travis screaming and the plane engulfed in flames. I remember thinking it was like Miami Vice, where a car is on fire and you run before the gas tank explodes—we gotta get out of here! Travis jerked open the door and slid on his butt down a wing that was on fire. I tried to cover my face as I jumped through a fireball. As soon as I hit the ground, I remembered “Stop, drop and roll,” so I started rolling.
I saw Travis running and flailing, trying to put out fire on his body. He screamed, “What do I do!” I said, “Roll!” He did, but the fire didn’t go out. He tried to rip his clothes off. I finally put the flames out by smothering him with my body. Some of my burns are from that. His sock was on fire—I burned my fingers taking it off.
Nearby witnesses called 911.
We were sitting by the side of the road in shock. Travis was naked. I took my pants off and gave them to him. I had my phone in my pocket and called my mom. My eyebrows and layers of skin were burned off my face. My forehead was gouged, and my arm had skin hanging off. It was pouring blood and plasma. I was in shock and didn’t feel anything. I screamed, “There are four people in the plane!”
As the fire trucks and ambulances stopped, everyone stared at the plane and didn’t see us because we ran so far from it. I yelled to a fireman, “Honk your horn so they know there are survivors!” Fuel had spilled across the road, so they couldn’t drive directly to us. By the time we got in the ambulance, it felt like 30 minutes passed.
In the ambulance I was in so much pain. It sounds weird, but they turn the heat on full blast so your body doesn’t go into hypothermia. On burns that’s excruciating. We were screaming and moaning. Still, I don’t know why, but I believed I’d be okay. I kept thinking, “Where are Lil’ Chris and Che?”
At a small South Carolina hospital, doctors put Goldstein to sleep so they could intubate him to prevent his throat from closing due to smoke inhalation.
Before they turned up the juice I was paralyzed but could hear them. I heard someone say, “This guy dated Nicole Richie.” Then a person said, “He doesn’t know he’s about to fly again” and laughed. It was a nightmare.
He was then airlifted to the Joseph M. Still Burn Center in Doctors Hospital in Augusta, Ga. Two days later Goldstein regained consciousness.
I was very sedated. I woke up in a room with my mom, my sister Lara and friends like Mandy Moore and my managers Lawrence Vavra and Paul Rosenberg. Paul is a big guy, and at the burn center you have to wear head-to-toe scrubs because of all the open wounds. The first thing out of my mouth was, “Damn, Paul, they make those in XXXL?” He was like, “He’s alive—and he’s himself!”
At Doctors Hospital I was in and out of consciousness. I had a line to my heart, two IVs with pain medication and antibiotics, and pigskin covering my burns to encourage my body to regrow red blood cells. People must have looked at me and wanted to fall apart. I asked a doctor for a mirror to see myself. The bandages were like a ski mask. But I thought I’d be okay. I didn’t think, “I’ll be disfigured for life.” I wasn’t too concerned with myself.
Travis was in the room next to me. I wondered, “How’s Trav? What happened to Chris and Che?” All I wanted to know was what I already knew: They died on impact. I wanted to know they didn’t feel any pain. [Goldstein chokes up] That was almost a relief. The Sept. 29 memorial service for Lil’ Chris was beautiful. It was so sad.
He took a private bus back to L.A., accompanied by a burn-center nurse.
It was a 40-hour ride—I slept for 36. I was exhausted. I woke up to use the bathroom, say hi, then go back to sleep. I walked slowly. If I put my hand on anything, it was covered in plasma.
Back in L.A., at the Grossman Burn Center at Sherman Oaks Hospital, they scraped my wounds clean in a procedure called debriding. They removed the pigskin and bandages to see if I needed skin grafts. I did—areas on my arm and neck would never grow back unless they took skin from other parts of my body.
They shaved my head and took layers of skin from my scalp. To heal the wounds, I was in a hyperbaric chamber for 90 minutes twice daily for four days. In it your body gets 2.4 times the normal atmospheric pressure of oxygen. I believe that’s why I’ve healed so fast. It’s claustrophobic, but I could listen to a TV outside playing Casino and Ace Ventura: Pet Detective.
As a recovering addict with 10 years’ sobriety, Goldstein has a nurse distribute his pain medicine and visits a behavior modification specialist regularly. He says he may see a therapist to diagnose post-traumatic stress disorder.
In recovery, they say, “Take what is exactly prescribed and stop when they say to stop.” I do what I’m told.
One of my first nights home, I watched Iron Man with friends. In the scene where Robert Downey Jr. comes out of a cave with a blowtorch, my whole body cringed. That night, I had a nightmare that someone spilled fuel on me and was trying to light me on fire. I woke up and thought, “Oh my God, this is going to happen forever.” I called my therapist and told her the nightmare. I haven’t had one since.
He plans to return to work starting on Oct. 15 in L.A. for Jay-Z’s tour.
Jay-Z asked me to tour before all this. It’s the biggest opportunity of my career. I’m looking forward to every part but traveling. For four years I’ve flown to Vegas almost every weekend to deejay. I think, “Will I drive? Maybe.” I think I’ll fly again commercially but never on a small plane. It’s too scary.
My emotions go back and forth. At the first hospital, I screamed, “Thank you!” Then I wondered, Why did I live? I can’t believe I made it. Any second it can all be gone. I’ve prayed every night for the past 10 years. There’s a lot more to thank God for now. My philosophy is, Live life to the fullest. I was saved for a reason. Maybe I’m going to help someone else. I don’t question it. All I know is I’m thankful I’m still here.
I always said I have 1,000 acquaintances and very few friends. I thought people aren’t there if you need them. Now I realize I have 1,000 friends who’ve been there for me. I am blessed.