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Paul Neal ‘Red’ Adair, 89; Hero of the Oil Fires

Times Staff Writer

A loud-mouthed Texan died, and St. Peter decided to put him in his place. He pointed straight down, to where the fires of hell were raging.

“You got anything like that in Texas?” he asked the man.

“Nope,” the man conceded. “But we’ve got the only guy who could put it out.”

Paul Neal “Red” Adair, the feisty, fearless Texan who forged a legend capping runaway oil well gushers and battling their raging fires, has died. He was 89.

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Adair died Saturday of natural causes at a Houston hospital, his daughter, Robyn Adair, told Associated Press.

For Red Adair, it all really began one chilly December morning in 1940.

The burly young redhead, who had found work doing odd jobs for Otis Pressure Control, a company that serviced drilling rigs, was helping out on a gas well near Smackover, Ark., when the wellhead suddenly blew. A high-pressure geyser of gas screamed hundreds of feet into the air, scattering debris and threatening to explode into flame at any moment.

Everyone ran, except Adair.

He grabbed a wrench, walked calmly to the spewing wellhead and tightened the bolts on a containment flange that had worked loose and caused the leak.

The blowout was capped. A career was born.

Over the next half century, Adair made that terrifying walk to blown or burning wellheads close to 2,000 times.

He said he’d often begin the walk in the company of as many as 10 men.

“Pretty soon, though, I’d look around and there’d only be five left,” he said in his biography, “An American Hero: The Red Adair Story,” written by Philip Singerman.

“I’d go on a little farther, and look around again, and maybe there’d be one left,” Adair said. “A lot of times, when I’d look around, there’d be none, just me. I’d keep walking.... That’s a lonely walk, boy, you’d better believe it.”

Adair crisscrossed the world, risking his life again and again as he choked off natural gas blowouts and snuffed out searing blazes on runaway wells.

He suffered countless bruises and burns, repeated smoke inhalations, and once, a crushed pelvis. But he always came back for more.

In 1949, he crawled to a wellhead with a satchel full of dynamite to blow out a gas and oil blaze in south Texas. In 1962, he put out a Libyan oil well fire that had burned so brightly that astronaut John Glenn could see it from space. In 1970, he snuffed out an oil well platform fire off Louisiana that led to laws making those responsible pay for the mess. In 1980, he capped a well off the Yucatan coast that had poured more than 100 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

His place as one of Texas’ true heroes was so secure that when it came time to make a movie based on Red’s exploits, there was only one actor -- John Wayne -- who could play the lead.

Adair was a technical advisor on the 1968 film, called “The Hellfighters.” The actor and the firefighter took a natural shine to each other -- Wayne had another fan and Adair had another drinking buddy.

Born in Houston on June 18, 1915, to blacksmith Charles Adair and his wife, Mary, Red Adair grew up in poverty, farmed out at age 6 to a home for children when his parents were unable to care for him.

Small for his age -- even as an adult, he stood barely 5-foot-6 -- he fended off bullies by learning to box. As a teenager, he grew stockier and stronger, and his skills in the ring earned him pocket change.

A high school dropout, he was working for the Southern Pacific Railroad as a general laborer when he met and married his wife, Kemmie, in 1939. A few months later, he went to work for Otis, and six months after that, he attracted the attention of other “oil patch” men when he capped the gas well blowout in Smackover.

One of those who took notice was Myron McKinley, a pioneer in the field of battling well blowouts and fires. In 1941, McKinley hired Adair to keep watch on an unstable gas well in Edinberg, Texas. Subterranean pressure was building up faster than McKinley’s men could counter it, and one night, as Adair and some other men attempted to bleed off the excess pressure, the well blew.

“Red could feel himself rising on the column of gas, everything [flying up] with him -- enormous metal collars, chains, tools, boards, all twisting and turning, higher and higher through the derrick,” Singerman wrote. “He must have risen 80 feet.”

The rising column of gas helped cushion Adair’s fall -- somehow he was unhurt. But he knew he was lucky -- two other men caught in the blowout were killed.

One good thing about his line of work, he said later, was that it gave him freedom from life-insurance salesmen.

As Adair pursued his trade, he perfected his techniques. He learned the right mixtures of heavy mud to pump down a well shaft to counter the rising gas in a blowout. He designed and built improved equipment to stifle leaks. He developed new and better ways to emplace the nitroglycerin charges he used to blow out oil well fires.

In the waning months of World War II, Adair enlisted in the Army, volunteering for an ordnance-disposal unit that ended up defusing unexploded bombs in postwar Japan.

After his Army duty, he went back to work for McKinley. Adair took on more managerial duties, hiring better and more experienced workers. There were oil-well blowout experts like Asgar “Boots” Hansen and Edward “Coots” Matthews, who would eventually form their own firm. There were equipment operators like “Three-Finger” George Curry, a lean, leathery bulldozer driver with a mangled hand -- a man unafraid to take his tractor into the teeth of a fire to place the charge that would snuff it out.

Adair never had much use for the accountants, lawyers, engineers and other college-educated types who tried to tell him how to do his job.

“They’ve been to school, but they haven’t been out bustin’ their asses on oil rigs,” he told Singerman. “Arguing with an engineer is like wrestling with a pig. Everybody gets covered with crap, and the pig’s the only one who has a good time.”

Oil-well drilling surged during the postwar economic boom, and for the first time in his life, Adair was making good money. He bought Cadillacs for himself and his wife -- painted fire-engine red, of course -- and they moved into ever bigger and more sumptuous homes.

Adair indulged himself with two new passions -- racing automobiles, at which he wasn’t much good, and racing speedboats, in which he won a few trophies.

Despite their newfound affluence, Kemmie and Red Adair had an often tempestuous relationship. Kemmie liked her independence, while Red wanted to rule the roost. Red spent a majority of his time on the job, away from the family, and Kemmie eventually got a home of her own, where she and their children spent increasing amounts of time.

Nonetheless, although sometimes at long range, Red and Kemmie stuck it out.

In 1959, Adair started his own business, Red Adair Co. Inc., taking Boots and Coots with him. The business, which started slowly, picked up steam rapidly during the oil boom of the 1960s.

“The jobs would come in so fast that the boys went from airport to airport for months, and I hardly ever saw them,” Joy Hamilton, Adair’s executive assistant, later told Singerman.

“Then there’d be a lull, and they’d hit town,” Hamilton said. “Everyone would get together and raise hell, partying and boating and laughing it up, and then they’d be gone for months again. I remember one time Red went from fighting a fire somewhere in the desert in the Middle East, where the temperature was 120 degrees, to a job in the ice and snow in Alaska, to another one in the jungle in South America, then back to north Canada, where it was 30 below zero.”

The big oil companies paid Adair well for his work, but when a small-time wildcatter had a problem, Adair sometimes handled the job for nothing.

“Living with a man who works in the oil patch is like living with a gambler,” Kemmie Adair once said. “Sometimes it’s chicken, and sometimes it’s feathers.”

Over the years, though, there was a lot more chicken than feathers. Forbes magazine estimated that during his career, Adair netted more than $100 million.

In 1977, Boots and Coots left to start their own company. The parting was acrimonious, with Boots and Coots accusing their former boss of shortchanging them.

Age and economics were starting to catch up with Adair. The oil booms were history, and in 1986, he suffered a heart attack. Adair soldiered on, but things weren’t quite the same.

In 1988, his firm quenched oil well fires that had killed 167 people on a platform in the North Sea. Adair was 73 by then, and younger men were called upon to brave the flames at the wellheads.

“It was the first time he ever had to sit back and just watch,” one of Adair’s men told Singerman. “I think it was the hardest thing he ever had to do.”

At the end of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Adair’s company extinguished Kuwaiti oil well fires set by Saddam Hussein’s men. This time, the work was shared with a number of other firms, including the one formed by Boots and Coots.

In 1994, Adair finally called it quits, holding a news conference to announce the sale of his firm to Global Industries, Ltd., an oil-industry services company based in Lafayette, La.

A reporter had the temerity to ask him if, at 78, he finally was too old to fight fires.

“Oh, hell no,” Red Adair replied.

In addition to his daughter, Adair leaves his wife and a son, James Paul Adair.

As for those fires of hell, Adair insisted in 1991: “I’ve done made a deal with the devil. He said he’s going to give me an air-conditioned place when I go down there, if I go there, so I won’t put all the fires out.”


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