Art Porter Dies in Freak Accident By Mark Ruffin – 12/02/1996
Today guitarist Alan Burroughs returns home to Chicago after a long Thanksgiving holiday weekend, one for which he will forever give thanks. He was the lone survivor in the tragic boating accident last weekend in Thailand that claimed the life of saxophonist Art Porter.
For the past ten days the 39 year-old musician has led a movie like existence. He fought for his life in an Asian jungle and had a sudden heartfelt meeting with the President of the United States. The really sad parts of the story include a nasty bout he had with the Thai press and of course attending the burial of one of his best friends this past Saturday morning in Little Rock.
Burroughs thought perhaps it was the odd coincidence of the President arriving in Bangkok two days after Porter died that led to some busy major Thai newspapers quoting him without even bothering to call for an interview. “They fabricated a story that said Art was dead because of his friends. There was a list of reasons for the accident that was credited to me and there were other erroneous quotes.” Burroughs also considered the irony that the Porter and Clinton families have been friends for two decades before complaining about rumors and televised reports he heard about in Chicago. He said the two embassies involved were very busy and that may have aided in some misinformation. He still cites as irresponsible the locally televised report that said Porter couldn’t swim. Part of the reason he’s home is to get the story straight. He starts with this exclusive interview, his first since the accident.
This story really begins ten years ago back when Porter was just beginning to build his career by prowling the clubs in Chicago. Chances are that back then Porter could’ve met the young Thai guitarist he was fated to die with. Burroughs, who joined Porter’s band in 1992, remembers him only as Arnon. Arnon was an exchange student at the now closed American Conservatory of Music on South Michigan Avenue where he made a lot of friends studying jazz. After graduation, he went home to get involved in the Bangkok music scene and was no doubt pleased to see Art Porter’s group performing for three nights at this year’s Golden Jubilee Jazz Festival where over 40 bands from all over the world perform in Thailand. Though he was living in Nashville at the time of his death, everybody in Porter’s band was from Chicago. Joining Kenwood Academy grad Burroughs was Porter’s long time bassist Ted Brewer, keyboardist Brian Danzy, and Arnon’s classmate, drummer Toby Williams. “Toby and I went to a club to see this fellow perform. We had Saturday and Sunday off before going to Malaysia, and Arnon asked Toby what he wanted to do. Toby said go fishing out in the country. We didn’t know we’d be so far away and we were not supposed to get into any boat.”
They concocted a plan that included libations, fishing and guitar playing that was so enticing that the rest of the band wanted to join in. They loaded into a van with Arnon, his wife and two other Thai friends. It was around seven o’clock Saturday when about 100 miles outside of Bangkok, they were warned that the road to the place where Arnon’s friend lived was flooded. The only alternative was a small local ferry across a nearby man-made lake dubbed Kwae.
Including the driver, only five passengers could get into the boat at a time, and it was a tight fit for the first ones to ferry, Porter, Burroughs, Arnon and his wife. As dusk settled and the full moon began to rise, Burroughs recalled jokingly saying, “what’s the worse that could happen? Everybody knows how to swim, right?” That when they found out that Arnon’s wife couldn’t. “I was quiet after that,” Burroughs said. With his legs wrapped around Porter, Burroughs felt the sax man’s body become tense and nervous after it took the driver about ten pulls on the starter cord to get the motor running. Even more so as the boat wobbled a bit. He massaged his shoulders and Porter said he appreciated it. The voyage was about ten minutes old when it was Burroughs body that became taut. “I felt water rushing in, hitting me in my lower back. I yelled out ‘water is coming into the boat.’ Then everybody started to squeeze into the back of the boat. It started to fill and there was all this yelling and screaming, mainly from Arnon’s wife. The boat never capsized, it kind of held steady until it was sunk.”
The boat resurfaced upside down and the quintet held on until it went under again. By the light of the moon, they spotted the nearest shoreline. Amidst cries of help, they tried to keep verbal and visual contact and move towards it. But Arnon was only treading water with his wife hanging on, he wasn’t moving. “We screamed, ‘Come on Arnon, you can make it,’ but he didn’t. “After a couple of minutes, Art was getting tired and he said ‘can you help me A.B.?’ So I swam closer to him and put my arms under his shoulders. But that certainly didn’t work because I just got pushed down into the water. “On my second attempt,” Burroughs continued, ” I tried to put my arms around him like I’ve seen in the movies. But that didn’t work because Art just kept dog peddling going nowhere, and I could barely stay up myself with the weight of my clothes. Then he started swimming, and we were going fine for a minute or so when I said ‘Art, we have to take our shoes off. “We stopped swimming and I went under to kick one shoe off. Then after I went under to get the other shoe, I came up and I didn’t see Art. I looked at how far I was from the shore, and I didn’t think that I could make it, but I also knew that I couldn’t dive under water to see where Art was.”
Burroughs kept swimming and screaming the names of Porter and Arnon. About twenty-five feet from land he saw a piece of wood sticking out of the water. It was the remains of an old dock. He swam there and rested. Safely perched, Burroughs attracted the attention of his mates, who had heard the commotion but saw little on the darkened body of water. Danzy and both Thai men immediately jumped into the water. The American and one of the Asian rescuers returned soon afterwards. The other, obviously a good swimmer, came back later and said he spotted only the boat.
Once ashore, Burroughs said he must’ve been in shock for ten or twenty minutes because he couldn’t talk and remembers little until the fear of their remoteness shook him out of it. “I mean we were deep in the jungle. I became angry because of the lack of the response. It was so obvious that we were not in the States.” The first villagers with searchlights arrived after ten. The police showed up at midnight. The press helicopters that showed America the ghastly pictures of Porter’s body being removed from Lake Kwae were there at six the next morning. By that time, the sleep-deprived band had marched through miles of deep underbrush and filed long, extensive police reports. Burroughs found himself in another boat trying to show the police where it all happened.
After the fabricated stories in the papers came out on Monday, band members thought of asking the very busy American embassy to get in touch with the President. By Tuesday morning, he beat them to it. Unbeknownst to the band, the President was aware of what had happened while he was still in the Philippines. Reportedly, his involvement helped with initial problems with the Thai authorities concerning the removal of Porter’s body.
He’s a very special cat,” Burroughs said of our jazz loving leader. “He gave recollections of the days he used to play saxophone duets with Art when he was (Arkansas) Attorney General and Art was a teen-ager, and how he knew Art had something really special. He talked about Art’s late father, and asked if we were going to stay together as a band. Clinton then singled Burroughs out and tried to bolster his spirits. “He told me that I shouldn’t feel responsible or guilty and that I did the best I could. He was quite comforting and showed some very serious remorse. He brightened us all up.”