Wall Street History
An American Original
The great oil well firefighter, Red Adair, recently passed away at
89. With all the talk of energy in general these days and
its impact on the economy, Adair’s story is certainly a worthy
topic for this column.
Born Paul Neal Adair in 1915, “Red” (so named because of his
hair) was one of 8 children. Growing up in Houston, he
developed into a burly young man and was a good athlete. The
Houston area, of course, was oil country and by 1938 Red was
working with the Otis Pressure Control Company, an oil service
operation, doing odd jobs on rigs and such.
One day in 1940, though, he was helping out on a project near
Smackover, Arkansas, when the wellhead blew. A geyser of gas
shot in the air and it threatened to explode into flame.
“Everyone ran, except Mr. Adair. He grabbed a wrench, walked
calmly to the 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.” [Financial Times]
World War II called, however, and Red enlisted in the Army in
1945, assigned to a bomb demolition unit in the closing days.
After this experience he returned to Houston and got a job with
Myron Kinley, a firefighter who it is said was the original
pioneer in putting out oil well fires and blowout control. While
in his latter years Adair liked to say that in his entire career
none of his men ever suffered a serious injury, Adair himself had
more than a few close calls. While with Kinley in the 1940s, he
was working on a well in South Texas when an explosion under
the platform propelled him some 50 feet in the air, yet he
emerged unscathed. Over the years, however, he did suffer a
number of injuries, including a broken pelvis when a crane fell
on him but he insisted this wasn’t serious.
In 1959, Myron Kinley retired and Red bought his equipment for
a whopping $125, forming Red Adair Company for the purpose
of controlling well fires and blowouts. Adair revolutionized the
business by utilizing explosives, water cannons, bulldozers,
drilling mud and concrete.
“It scares you; all the noise, the rattling, the shaking,” Adair once
said. “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.” [AP]
Among the firsts for Red Adair Company were extinguishing an
underwater wild well, a job on a floating vessel and the first U.S.
well to be capped while on fire. One of his most famous projects
came early on, the 1962 “Devil’s Cigarette Lighter” fire in the
“Devil’s Cigarette” was a natural gas fire in Libya that burned so
brightly astronaut John Glenn saw it from space.
From the Houston Chronicle:
“Flames shot 800 feet into the air with a sound that shook the
ground for miles. Within a half mile of the well, the desert sand
was melted into glass from the intense heat.
“After deciding that digging under the natural gas well would be
too dangerous, Adair put out the fire with a single blast from 750
pounds of nitroglycerine” (which sucks the oxygen out of the
fire, suffocating it).
In 1980, Adair capped a well off the Yucatan coast that had
poured 100,000 gallons of crude into the Gulf of Mexico, but his
biggest challenge may have been the 1988 Piper Alpha disaster
in the North Sea that claimed 167 lives. Not only did he have to
deal with the platform fires following the initial explosion, but
also 80-mph winds and 70-foot seas. It took three weeks but
Adair and Company brought the situation under control by first
pumping cement into the wells and then capping them.
Adair was paid big money by the oil companies, with crew
members earning $7-$10,000 a day while on duty, though if a
small wildcatter had a problem Red often did the work for free.
In 1968, Adair was honored through a John Wayne film,
“Hellfighters,” that drew its inspiration from Red’s exploits.
Adair served as an advisor on the project (which didn’t do well at
the box office) and The Duke and Red became fast friends and
“That’s one of the best honors in the world,” said Adair. “To
have The Duke play you in a movie.”
Even if you didn’t see the film, you probably remember a clip
from it, with Wayne walking towards a fire. Adair himself
estimated he made that terrifying walk some 2,000 times, often
in the company of as many as 10 men at the start. “Pretty soon,
though, I’d look around and there’d only be five left,” he said in
his biography, ‘An American Hero,’ 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, there’d be none, just
In 1991, though Red Adair was getting up there in years, he
ended up celebrating his 76th birthday in Kuwait as his company
was responsible for capping about 120 of the 700+ oil wells that
Saddam Hussein had torched as his forces were exiting the country.
Along with the other teams from 16 nations that participated in
the massive operation, they were able to complete the project in
six months. Some had said that it would take 3-5 years, but
through the firefighters’ efforts an international ecological
disaster was avoided.
“Kuwait was easy,” Adair explained. “We put all the fires out
with water, just went from one to the next.” [He did use a few
explosives as well, it should be noted.]
But Adair had an interesting comment in an interview concerning
the Kuwait operation. Government red tape hindered his work.
“It’s ridiculous. I’ve been doing this for 50 years and I’ve never
been in a situation like this before in my life where it goes
through so many changes of command to get the equipment we
need. You need one man at the top so if I say I need 19
bulldozers I get 19 bulldozers.” [AP]
[You know who I thought of in reading this? General Tommy
Franks, who on his current book tour has expressed the same
frustrations with regards to post-war Iraq.]
Red Adair received a number of presidential commendations,
with one reading:
“Through your undaunted courage, perseverance, and skill, you
have probably saved more oil than any single individual in the
world. Each time you go into a wild oil fire situation, you
demonstrate again that American ingenuity, skill, and self-
discipline can master the seemingly impossible. You have
served your country well by your willingness to do a dangerous
and important job with a rare ability In an age said to be
without heroes, you are an authentic hero.”
Adair once joked of his life, “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
But you know what? According to his wife, Red Adair couldn’t
mow his own lawn.
Red Adair Biography / redadair.com
Danny Perez and Rasha Madkour / Houston Chronicle
AP, BBC News
Eric Malnic / Financial Times
Richard Severo / New York Times
Wall Street History returns August 20.