Edward ‘Coots’ Matthews dies at 86; half of famed oil well firefighting team

Mcclatchy-Tribune News Service

Edward “Coots” Matthews, a famed oil well firefighter and part of a trio who inspired the 1968 movie “Hellfighters” starring John Wayne, died March 31 of natural causes at his home in Humble, Texas. He was 86.

Matthews and Asger “Boots” Hansen co-founded Houston-based Boots & Coots International Well Control Inc. in 1978 after a 20-year career fighting oil well fires alongside counterpart -- and later rival -- Paul “Red” Adair.

In a true roughneck-to-riches story, Matthews helped build Boots & Coots into a company with one of the most recognizable names in the oil industry.

“It was a pretty good trick,” said Jerry Winchester, president and chief executive of Boots & Coots. “You start with two or three guys and a secretary and then you look up 30 years later and it’s a $200-million business with 700 employees.”

Born in Porter, Texas, in 1923, Matthews served in the Army Air Forces as a B-17 tail-gunner over Europe during World War II.

He went to work for Halliburton in 1947 then in the late ‘50s he and Hansen joined forces with Adair at M.M. Kinley Co., a pioneer in well control and firefighting.

The trio would go on to develop firefighting and well control methods that paved the way for today’s sophisticated blowout preventer and pressure control technology. They figured it out through “sheer tenacity and ingenuity,” Winchester said, at a time when the industry lacked the equipment and science that now make well fires much less frequent.

Matthews and Hansen left M.M. Kinley and followed Adair to his eponymous company in the early 1960s.

When they caught the eye of Hollywood, Matthews and Adair served as technical advisors on the set of “Hellfighters” to ensure the well blowouts looked realistic and that nobody got hurt.

The picture, starring Wayne as Adair, enhanced the myth of hellfighters as rugged, romantic heroes.

In real life, Adair, Matthews and Hansen worked some of the industry’s most notorious blowouts, including a fire in Algeria in 1961 known as the “Devil’s Cigarette Lighter.” Astronaut John Glenn reported seeing it from space as he passed over the Algerian desert. Experts thought the fire, which billowed 450 feet in the air, would take years to extinguish. They did the job in just a few weeks.

A personal falling-out, purportedly over pay, prompted Matthews and Hansen to leave the Red Adair Co. in 1978 to found Boots & Coots. The men didn’t speak with Adair for a decade but eventually mended fences. Adair died in 2004.

After Iraq’s 1991 invasion of Kuwait, Matthews was called to service, flying to the Persian Gulf to help extinguish some 700 fires in Kuwaiti oil fields.

Matthews retired in 1994 and Boots & Coots was sold to employees. International Well Control acquired the company in 1997 and changed the name to Boots & Coots International Well Control.

Despite Matthews’ tough-guy persona, his nickname came from an aunt who coddled him with “cootsie, cootsie.” The name stuck.

He is survived by a daughter, Sharon Scott; a sister, four grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.