"Red Adair" – a blast from the past

Published:  07 January, 2010

To celebrate Industrial Fire Journal's 20th anniversary we will be re-publishing throughout 2010 some of the best articles from the last 20 years. Here, from issue number 1 (1990) of Industrial Fire Journal, is an interview with Red Adair, described by one US president as "the man who has probably saved more oil than any single individual in the world".

What has been the worst incident of your career?

Every assignment is tough. Even the smallest one can be most dangerous. I remember one small fire for Mobil Oil where every time we approached it, the wind would just fan up the flames over us - that fire just seemed to follow us about whichever angle we approached it. So you can see – small size doesn’t mean small risk.
  Certainly in offshore operations, the more wells there are the more difficult things get. Like the Piper Alpha fire in 1988 – that had 36 wells we had to deal with. And it doesn’t have to be on fire to be a problem.
  I remember one platform in 250 feet of water which had 37 wells – it blew but the oil didn’t fire and it still took us a week and a half to bring it under control.

As a fire and blowout specialist, who has been the biggest influence on your career?

I certainly regard Myron Kinley as my teacher. I joined his company, M.M. Kinley, in 1946 after I came out of Bomb Disposal. He was one of the original pioneers of oil well fire and blowout controls. Together we did a lot of innovative firefighting and invented a whole range of new equipment, such as callipers and perforators, for the industry.

In your opinion, is the industrial firefighter in greater demand than ever before?

He’s in greater demand, certainly. He’s a very special guy. Here in Houston, for example, we had a refinery fire initiated by a lightning strike on oil storage tanks. The firefighters had done an excellent job of containing the fire behind a dike and were using water with just the right amount of foam to extinguish it. I was really proud of the way these firefighters handled it.

How important is having the right equipment to you?

Essential. We have a lot of new equipment, capping devices, foams, fire retardant chemicals, sprinkler systems, a semi-submersible firefighting vessel, breathing apparatus sets and the best fire firefighting clothing we can buy – we all wear Nomex underwear too. This is just so important.
  I was at a well fire in Mexico recently with Brian Krause and while we were approaching the blaze, one of the workers shut the pumping equipment off – it felt just like being a baked potato! You appreciate at moments like that, having the right equipment, the right protection.

What training do your own firefighters have to undergo?

I have trained all of my men personally. In my company we take on firefighters when they’re young, and work ‘em through well-head schools and on the job training.
  For us, a firefighter isn’t just born – he’s moulded by the company. We currently have three apprentice firefighters working in our warehouse operation. You know how you tell if a man will make a good firefighter when you’re at the scene of a fire?
  You watch his feet and his eyes – if either of them gets jittery, then you know he’s looking for a place to run. That man won’t make it in the firefighting business.
  For myself, when I go on missions and I watch my men tackling a blaze, I’m like an old hen laying an egg – it makes me so nervous watching someone else operate, in case things go wrong for them.
  We were dealing with one well in Venezuela and the foreman and this one other guy were so scared to death that they practically knocked me down in their haste to get away when the well blew like a cannon. Do you know, the only man that did his job was the driller? He stayed to shut down the engines and put the well-head fire-restraints in place. You’ve got to admire that.

What can you tell us about the four key men who head your firefighting teams?

Raymond Henry is a senior firefighter. He joined us in 1964 and has participated in every facet of the Red Adair operations, both in firefighting and management. Since joining the company, Raymond has worked very closely with the industry, developing and refining the skills that he uses in controlling wild wells all over the world.
  Some examples of the jobs that Raymond has successfully completed include a blowout in the Persian Gulf in 1978 that was making 800 million cubic feet of gas per day, and a land fire in Mexico in 1980 producing 68,000 barrels of oil per day. In addition, he was part of the crew at the Piper Alpha disaster. Raymond’s includes all methods of well control. He is also an expert in the use of explosives.
  Richard Hatteberg joined us in 1965 and is currently a senior firefighter. He has been instrumental in controlling some of the world’s largest and most dangerous blowouts. In his 25 years of experience, Richard has worked in all of the known oil fields in the world.
  In addition to his expertise in subsea, surface and downhole blowouts, Richard is experienced in capping some of the most dangerous hydrogen sulphide wells on earth. He is experienced in handling explosives and capping blowouts, subsea blowouts and burning wells.
  Danny Clayton, who joined the Red Adair Company in 1980, is a well control specialist. He specialises in the design of blowout prevention equipment, control systems and wellhead equipment. Danny has been involved in the successful control of wild wells and blowouts in most oil-producing areas of the world. He is also experienced in handling explosives and capping blowouts and burning wells.
  Brian Krause is a well control specialist who has been with the firm since 1977. His area of expertise includes specialising in the control of domestic and international petroleum fires and blowouts. His work in wild well control has taken him all over the world and altogether he has 13 years of well control experience.
  Brian is experienced in the use of explosives. When not on a job, he takes care of equipment design and contingency planning, sales, and assists customers with the selection of company equipment and services.

What gives you the most satisfaction in your work?

I suppose it’s approaching a technical problem – like a well on fire – and solving it. It’s a good feeling when you put out the fire and everyone has the best grin you’ve ever seen. Everyone remembers these occasions. Do you know we still get letters, cards and faxes from guys around the world in places where we’ve worked? Even one well I put out in 1947!

What areas in industry present the biggest threat?

Refineries by far. Around 85% of the incidents we’re called into deal with have been caused by human error – a foul-up – or an Act Of God such as a lightning strike. So many fires could be prevented by good preventative maintenance.

What accomplishment are you proudest of?

Here at Red Adair Company we’re proudest of the fact we have had no fatalities. Our worst accident ever was a broken leg caused by falling debris from a burning derrick.
  For myself, I played a game of golf the other day and shot even par! I’m 75 and still working – and that’s what I enjoy the most.

Are your services in big demand around the world?

Absolutely. Some of us have just spent 20 months in South America, others have been to Muscat, dealt with blown wells in Libya, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Wyoming.
  We charter a plane and off we go at a moment’s notice – response time is important. When we were called in to put out the Piper Alpha oilrig fire we were on-site in under 12 hours from the first phone-call.

How did you feel about being immortalised in that 1969 John Wayne movie, ‘Hellfighters’?

It was a real pleasure working with John. And the thing about that film – it did demonstrate the real and serious risks involved in drilling.

Did you know that people praised the special effects?

That’s because they were real! The crew came with me to film me fighting fires at five wells in Venezuela.
  John Wayne even took the opportunity to come with me into a real fire – and he came out with his clothes actually smoking off his back.
  It’s always been a real tough business – and still is, even in the 1990s.

  • Operation Florian

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