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FAREWELL TO A LEGEND
"Paul N. 'Red' Adair, a world-renowned oil well firefighter who revolutionized the science of capping exploding and burning wells.

August, a towering figure in international fire fighting died. People who knew and loved him stopped for a moment to sing his praises. Former President George H.W. Bush called him "a friend, a wonderful human being and a patriot." Others said he was fearless and had a special zeal for life. Even the simplest obituary stripped of acclaim conveys his greatness.

"Paul N. 'Red' Adair, a world-renowned oil well firefighter who revolutionized the science of capping exploding and burning wells, has died. During his career he battled more than 2,000 of the worst fires yet devised by man and modern technology."

Then comes the amazing part.

"Adair died of natural causes. He was 89." That is an obituary I could wish for every firefighter.

Red took great pride that neither he nor any of his personnel had ever sustained a serious injury on the job. This, despite the fact that he specialized in fires that were worst-case examples of worst-case scenarios. For example, in 1962 he made his reputation extinguishing "the Devil's Cigarette Lighter," an oil well fire in Algeria 's Sahara Desert that burned so intense that astronaut John Glenn could see it from space.

Other Adair triumphs included extinguishing a massive offshore blaze at Bay Marchand, LA, in 1970; the Bravo offshore blowout in the North Sea in 1977; the Ixtoc blowout in the Gulf of Mexico in 1979; and the Piper Alpha disaster in 1988 that killed 167 men on a North Sea platform. Perhaps his greatest success was in 1991 when Adair and his team extinguished 117 of the burning oil well fires left behind in Kuwait by Saddam Hussein.

He even inspired a 1968 movie called "Hellfighters," starring John Wayne. Even though in real life Red Adair stood only 5-foot, 6-inches tall, it would take someone of Wayne 's stature to capture his exploits on film.

I was a McAllen , TX , firefighter when I first met Red in the 1960s. He used to visit the Rio Grande Valley regularly to hunt or visit old friends. When I began traveling as a consultant in the 1970s I ran into him even more often. One time we were both scheduled to speak at a fire conference in Adelaide , Australia . I love the sound of my own voice and will talk at length on anything. Not Red. He would rather have fought a blazing blowout wearing only his bloomers than go on stage and address that crowd.

"Red, don't worry about what you say," my wife Lynn told him. "The important thing is to just go out there and let them see you. Show them your slides and tell something about each one. Everything will be great." And it was -- that is until Red got to the second slide, which was upside down. Even legends have their bad days.

With that travail behind him, Red was ready for some fun. The hotel had a casino next door. "Come on David, lets go throw some money on the table," he said. Unfortunately, there was a strict dress code. High rollers wearing Levis were not welcome. They didn't keep us out of the place very long, though. When the provincial governor showed up wanting to get his picture taken with the famous Red Adair I mentioned the snub at the casino's door. The next thing I knew the governor, smiling wide, personally escorted Red and me right up to the roulette wheel. Now that is star quality.

In April 1991 I borrowed a little of that star quality on behalf of the annual Industrial Fire World conference and exposition. Since what I had in mind involved getting Red on stage again, I knew I'd have to trick him.

Red was on the eve of what would be his greatest triumph. The Gulf War had ended weeks earlier. As the Iraqis retreated, Saddam Hussein had ordered his troops to blow up hundreds of Kuwaiti oil wells. The oil fields were now a hellish landscape of blistering flames and choking, poisonous smoke. Putting them out would be the greatest fire fighting effort in history. And, yet, Red took time away from planning the logistics of this colossal mission to be with us at IFW.

There he was, sitting in the audience, one of the few times I ever saw him in a coat and tie. I got up on stage. "We are honoring a man who is an icon of the fire service," I started, proceeding to list Red's many achievements to this unnamed hero. Then I unveiled the trophy. Etched in a glass panel as big as a TV screen was Red's glowing countenance hovering above a flaming oil derrick. Lights under the glass made the flames dance.

Red stepped forward through the applauding crowd, pointing at me the whole time. "You tricked me," he said, smiling and adding a few expletives for emphasis. He said that of all the awards he had received in his career this was the most touching. He loved it so much that it earned a place of honor in the cabin of his 60-foot boat, "The Blowout." He also gave us permission to present an annual Red Adair award in recognition of special contributions to industrial fire fighting.

That award we gave Red is the only one I'm aware of that he ever received from the fire fighting community. Sure, he had honors galore bestowed upon him by kings, queens and other regal personages internationally. But when did the fire service give Red Adair his due for his innovation and courage? I'm sure some fitting memorial is now in the works, probably a statue in some forgotten park. I'm happy to say that I gave my tribute to Red while he was still alive to see it.

Also sitting in the audience was Congressman Curt Weldon of Pennsylvania . Weldon, founder of the Congressional Fire Services Institute, is well known as a friend to firefighters. However, he was at IFW representing the House Armed Services Committee. Washington was concerned that the fires in Kuwait were not getting put out as fast as possible. Weldon had been trying to reach Red for weeks to discuss this. Red never returned the call. I told Weldon that if he came to IFW I would arrange a meeting.

At lunch with Red, Weldon kept restating the obvious. "We've got more than 600 oil wells burning and your guys are putting them out one at a time," he said. "We need to expedite the process."

"What do you want me to do?" said Red, concentrating on his plate.

"My committee has the whole U.S. Army and all the resources of the federal government behind it," Weldon said. "Tell me what you need and I'll get it for you."

A serious look crossed Red's face. "Get your damn bureaucrats out of the way and I can probably get those wells put out twice as fast."

That was not the answer that Weldon was looking for. "What else can we do?" he said. "I'm prepared to offer you the assistance of the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers to get those fires put out. We just need you to tell us what to do."

Red refused to budge. "If you think we're not doing it fast enough put your amateurs in there and see how well they do it," he said.

In the end, Red got his way. Although estimates of completion of the fire fighting operation ranged from three to five years, this momentous task was completed in nine months. Red's company, working side by side with other important names in oil well fire fighting such as Wild Well Control and Boots and Coots, got the job done in record time.

People often identified Red with speed. He drove a red MG convertible that was the fastest thing on wheels. Red also had a 50-foot Scarab speedboat with three 420-cubic inch engines. But that need for speed did not apply to his work. He and his crew moved at a deliberate, methodical pace, for safety's sake.

First, a corrugated metal frame was built atop a D9 Caterpillar to protect the driver from the heat. Next, an athey wagon, a device concocted by Red, was moved into place. Mounted on tracts, this platform held a 60-foot boom that could drag away what was left of the demolished oil rig. Meanwhile, Red would have other bulldozers busy digging a pond. If there was no water on site, it had to be trucked in from elsewhere. Red's philosophy was to keep everything wet, decreasing the chance for an errant static spark that could re-ignite a snuffed out well.

With the debris out of the way, Red could examine what was left of the well head. If enough was still there, he might only have to shut the valve. On the hard jobs, the well head was too damaged to be useful. He either cut it off using a cutting torch or, sometimes, a cable stretched between two bulldozers. With the dozers moving back and forth in unison, the cable became a giant wire saw.

Then came the tough part. As much as 250 pounds of dynamite would be packed in dry chemical inside an asbestos-lined steel drum. The steel drum would be hung from the athey wagon's boom. Working in reverse, a bulldozer operator backed the wagon toward the fire, taking hand signals from Red. When the dynamite was where Red wanted it, he ordered the operator off the dozer. Red stayed close though, waiting for the blast crouched behind the dozer's blade.

If everything went right, the explosion blew out the fire. If not, the whole procedure was repeated until he got the result he wanted.

After that it was just a matter of welding a flange over the pipe with about 6,000 pounds of gas pressure shooting oil straight up. Simple, right? The correct sized valve would be secured to the flange by a single bolt. Then, with the valve open, it would be swiveled into place and completely bolted down. Once the valve was closed the blow out was over.

Red brought important innovations to off shore oil well fire fighting as well. He designed Tharos, a huge, twin-hulled, self-propelled work barge with a deck area as big as two-and-a-half football fields. She was a fire fighting vessel capable of pumping 40,000 gallons of water per minute from 240 feet away. Tharos was close at hand when, in July 1988, the Piper Alpha oil production platform exploded and burned in the North Sea , killing 167 people. It was Red who responded to that disaster, using Tharos to extinguish the fire and cap the 36 wells involved.

But as great as Red was, he knew his limits. His specialty was oil well fires. When people approached him with tank or pipeline fires, he would refer them to "those Williams boys down in Mauriceville." And, once in a while, Red even turned down an oil well fire if there was something about it he didn't like.

Another company lost three or four firefighters trying to put out an oil well fire in Syria one time. "What happened?" I asked Red. "I don't like to second guess anybody," he said, "but there is one thing you've got to know in our business -- when to walk away." Some fires truly are impossible to safely extinguish. Red didn't walk away from too many, but it was always an option.

Red Adair may have written his own epithet. In Philip Singerman's biography of Red, "Red Adair: An American Hero" he quotes what Red told a friend after narrowly escaping an exploding oil well on the coast of Mozambique .

"When I do die, I'd like to be remembered as a man who gave everybody an even break. If I ever did gyp anybody in my life, I didn't do it intentionally. I'd also like to be thought of as somebody who respected his fellow men -- who respected another man's work. Too many people don't do that."

America doesn't make men the caliber of Red Adair anymore. As a firefighter in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, I can testify that he was the John Wayne of our profession. His work will be respected for many generations to come.

 
 

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