"It's one of those things that comes back and it haunts you. Addiction's a tough thing," coroner Robert Ryg tells PEOPLE

By Char Adams
June 14, 2019 12:23 PM
AUstin Eubanks
Credit: Austin Eubanks/Instagram

Austin Eubanks, who spoke candidly about his opioid addiction after surviving the 1999 Columbine High School shooting, died of an accidental heroin overdose, according to the Routt County Coroner’s Office.

The 37 year old was found dead in his Steamboat Springs, Colorado home on May 18, and a coroner says the father of two died of “acute heroin toxicity.”

“It was ruled an accidental overdose. It’s sad because we were hoping it was some other cause of death,” coroner Robert Ryg tells PEOPLE. “He’s struggled with that in the past. We thought he was over that, but I guess it’s one of those things that comes back and it haunts you. Addiction’s a tough thing.”

Austin Eubanks at a memorial service in Littleton, Colorado, for Columbine High School shooting victims
| Credit: Laura Rauch/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Eubanks’ family confirmed the death in a statement last month, saying that Eubanks “lost the battle with the very disease he fought so hard to help others face.”

Eubanks was 17 years old when two fellow students entered the Colorado high school and opened fire. The attack left 13 people dead and 23 injured. The shooters also took their own lives. Eubanks and his best friend, Corey DePooter, hid under a table in the library, he told PEOPLE in a 2016 interview. DePooter was killed in front of Eubanks, who was shot in the hand and knee.

Eubanks said he quickly became addicted to opioids and other drugs after he was given painkillers following the shooting. He said he began to abuse the substances rather than “process emotion.” Eubanks struggled for several years, attempting rehab several times and finding long-term sobriety in 2011.

Austin Eubanks
Austin Eubanks
| Credit: Austin Eubanks/Instagram

By 2016, Eubanks had been sober for five years and became a motivational speaker, using his story to help others. He even worked at Foundry Treatment Center in Steamboat Springs from 2015 to 2019, Aubrey Gordon, a spokeswoman for the center and Eubanks’ family, previously told PEOPLE.

In 2016, when he celebrated his fifth year of sobriety, Eubanks told PEOPLE, “It took getting to this point in my life where I think it would have value. Hopefully I can help people.”

About 40 to 60 percent of those treated for substance use disorders suffer a relapse, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

“It’s a terrible disease,” Steamboat Springs Commander Jerry Stabile previously told PEOPLE. “It appears that it’s a lifelong endeavor to turn the corner on it. This is a prime example of that.”

In the wake of the death, Eubanks’ family has launched the Austin Eubanks Memorial Fund in collaboration with The Onsite Foundation, a nonprofit organization that provides trauma-informed counseling and emotional health education, to help survivors of mass shootings and other forms of violence, according to a statement obtained by PEOPLE.

“Austin cared deeply about his family and close friends and fought a personal battle every day to bring light, hope, and healing to others,” Eubanks’ sister, Hayley Eubanks, said in the statement.

“He encouraged us all to lean in to the pain, and through this much needed therapeutic program, his voice will continue to be heard and healing will begin.”

If you or someone you know is in need of help, please contact the SAMHSA substance abuse helpline at 1-800-662-HELP.