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Hellfighters – The Red Adair Story

Red Adair Story

Paul Neal “Red” Adair was an American oil well firefighter and one of the more famous men in the oil and gas business.

My father worked for Halliburton and when I was a kid, he told me many stories about Mr. Adair and even gave me a hat and belt buckle that Mr. Adair had given to him.

Red Adair was born in Houston in 1915, one of eight children in a blacksmith’s family. Appropriately enough, he was called “Red” because of his flaming hair.

Adair revolutionized the science of snuffing and controlling wells spewing high-pressure jets of oil and gas, using explosives, water cannons, bulldozers, drilling mud and concrete.

“It scares you: all the noise, the rattling, the shaking,” Adair once said, describing 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.”

Red Adair’s wild well control and firefighting expertise became legendary throughout the world.

His daring and his reputation for having never met a blowout he couldn’t cap earned him the nickname “Hellfighter.” That inspired the title of the 1968 John Wayne movie based on his life, “The Hellfighters.” Wayne made the film right after The Green Berets. It reteamed him with Andrew McLaglen, with whom Wayne had made McLintock! (1963), and Jim Hutton, who had been in The Green Berets.

Dad took me to see this movie in 1968 and I have easily seen it almost a dozen times. It is one of my all time favorites because 1) I like John Wayne and 2) it is about the oil and gas business.

This was the first film for which Wayne was paid $1 million.

Much of the filming took place in Houston and the surrounding area which was headquarters for Red Adair Co. Inc.

“That’s one of the best honors in the world: To have The Duke play you in a movie,” Adair said.

He founded Red Adair Co. Inc. in 1959 and is credited with battling more than 2,000 land and offshore oil well fires, including the hundreds of wells set afire when the Iraqi army retreated from Kuwait during the Gulf War in 1991.

Adair gained global attention in 1962 when he tackled a fire at the Gassi Touil gas field in the Algerian Sahara nicknamed the Devil’s Cigarette Lighter, a 450 foot (140 m) pillar of flame that burned from 12:00 PM November 13, 1961 to 9:30 AM on April 28, 1962.

In 1977, he and his crew (including Asger “Boots” Hansen and Manohar “Man” Dhumtara-Kejriwal) contributed to the capping of the biggest oil well blowout to have occurred in the North Sea (and at the time the largest offshore blowout worldwide, in terms of volume of crude oil spilled), at the Ekofisk Bravo platform, located in the Norwegian sector and operated by Phillips Petroleum Company (now ConocoPhillips).

In 1988, he was back in the North Sea when the Piper Alpha disaster occurred, where 167 men had died.  Piper Alpha was an oil production platform in the North Sea approximately 120 miles north-east of Aberdeen, Scotland, that was operated by Occidental Petroleum (Caledonia) Limited. It began production in 1976, initially as an oil-only platform but later converted to add gas production.

An explosion and resulting oil and gas fires destroyed Piper Alpha on July 6, 1988, and the blazing remains of the platform were eventually extinguished three weeks later by a team led by Red, despite reported conditions of 80 mph winds and 70-foot waves.

He proudly spent his 76th birthday in Kuwait clad in his trademark red overalls, swinging valves into place atop out-of-control wells.

His crews were among the first of 27 teams from 16 countries that spent eight months capping 732 Kuwaiti wells. His expertise helped greatly shorten an operation that had been expected to last three to five years, saving millions of barrels of oil and stopping an intercontinental air pollution disaster.

Adair retired in 1993 and sold The Red Adair Service and Marine Company to Global Industries. His top employees (Brian Krause, Raymond Henry, Rich Hatteberg) left in 1994 and formed their own company, International Well Control (IWC).

In more than 50 years of firefighting, he dealt with almost 3,000 fires. Remarkably, he was never much hurt. A crane crushed him once, and he suffered a few days of smoke-blindness. Exploding gas threw him in the air, but he seemed to bounce. In his later years he was deaf, not surprisingly, for much of his life had been spent amid the roar of flames or explosions. He perfected the art of snoozing while conflagrations raged around him.

Adair died in 2004 at age 89. Although he anticipated Heaven, it has been said he rather hoped for a sighting of Hell.

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