After 50 Years, Taming Runaway Oil Wells Still Thrills 'Red' Adair

Associated Press

Even at age 72 and gray at the temples, famed oil well firefighter Paul N. "Red" Adair is fidgety sitting behind a desk in a suit and tie.

"I still keep everything packed," he said, one ear cocked to the sound of ringing phones in his outer office. Business doesn't generally come by appointment to Red Adair Co.

By his own count, Adair has fought more than 2,000 oil well blowouts since that first one in Oklahoma in 1938, most by a combination of mud, guts and explosives.

"The day I get afraid of these things, I'll quit," said Adair. "Whatever is frightening is whatever scares you."

Casting a steady gaze over a red-carpeted office full of souvenirs, Adair admits he still hasn't mastered all the secrets of keeping the modern world's fossil genie in its geological bottle.

"Each job is different," he said. "They are all a challenge."

Shooting skyward at supersonic speed and often afire, oil and gas escaping from runaway wells can be lost at the rate of $1,000 per minute, day after day, month after month, until capped, Adair says.

"Having a well blow out, getting away from you, that's like writing a blank check," Adair said. "The quicker you get them under control, the better."

In a business where a wrong move or bad luck can blow a man to bits or incinerate him in flame, Adair scores success by noting his five-man cadre never has suffered a fatality.

Queried about his legendary status in oil circles for capping some of the biggest blowouts in history, Adair, in a characteristic understatement couched in Texas drawl, waxes humble.

"I don't call it celebrity, I call it doing your job and having a lot of good friends," he said. "It makes you feel good."

During his career, Adair has been the guest of kings, queens, movie stars and sheiks. But he says the greatest thrill was having actor John Wayne portray him in the 1968 film "Hellfighters."

Almost Got Fired

"That's one of the best honors in the world, to have the Duke play you in the movies," Adair said. "We got to be awful good friends."

Opportunity first came for Adair in 1938. He was laboring for 30 cents an hour in the Oklahoma oil fields when things went wrong on a rig.

"I don't know, maybe a valve blew that we was working on," he said. "Everybody else run but me and I stayed up there and put the valve back on and almost got fired."

The exploit brought him to the attention of Myron Kinley, then the dean of oil well firefighting, who hired Adair. When Kinley retired in 1959, Adair started his own company.

Three years later, Adair capped one of the most spectacular oil well fires in history, the so-called Devil's Cigarette Lighter in the Sahara desert. The blowout shot flames so high that astronaut John Glenn saw them from space.

Among his other well-known efforts were helping cap a huge North Sea blowout in 1977 and the 1979 IXTOC 1 blowout in the Gulf of Mexico. In between have been other jobs large and small, ranging from the jungles of Sumatra to the deserts of Iran.

"It scares you. All the noise, the rattling, the shaking," he said, describing the scene of a blowout. "But the look on everybody's face when you're finished and packing, it's the best smile in the world; and there's nobody hurt, and the well's under control."

Blowouts generally occur when oil and gas, trapped under enormous pressure within the earth, surge upward through a drilling hole, breaking through control devices. Most blowouts are caused by human error, Adair and others say.

When blowouts are aflame, oil well firefighters detonate a load of explosives near the wellhead to choke the fire by depriving it momentarily of oxygen. Some blowouts take several tries.

When the flame is out, a highly combustible column of spewing oil or gas remains. Crews then install special valves on the rig to choke the flow, or drill a second well nearby, injecting super-congealing mud near the base of the first well to coagulate the gusher at its source before capping the well.

Regardless of the technique used, Adair says oil well firefighters need strong nerves and flexible thinking.

Drives a Red Mercedes

"You look for a guy whose level-headed, willing to think, and got to be able to change his mind," Adair said. "But you never know (how someone will perform) until you get out there."

He also said few forget what they see.

"I was with some people the other day that were with us on a job 35 years ago, and they can remember every detail," he said. "They've only been on one blowout, but the people who've been on one will never forget it. It's a frightening experience."

In the years before mobile telephones, Adair and other firefighters who were employed by Kinley drove red Cadillacs so they could be conspicuous to police if they had to be flagged down in emergencies.

Adair, who now drives a red Mercedes, says that when he visits energy companies on routine business, they often get calls asking if they have a well blowout after people have spotted Adair's distinctive car.

In 1977, his two top men, Asger "Boots" Hansen and Edward O. "Coots" Matthews left the company in a business dispute, and started their own company "Boots & Coots," in direct competition with Adair.

In the best Oil Patch tradition, the three men remain friends, often socializing aboard power boats together in the Gulf of Mexico.

Neither Adair nor Hansen is specific about what they charge for capping a blowout, saying each case is different. But both say the business has been good to them.

"You meet a lot of people, you get a lot of challenges, it's never boring," Adair said.

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