This Day in Texas History:
Red Adair is Born
June 18, 1915
Paul Neal “Red” Adair, the Texas oil well firefighter, was born on June 18, 1915, in Houston, Texas, to Charles and Mary Adair. He had four brothers and three sisters. Red grew up in the Houston Heights and went to school at Harvard Elementary, Hogg Junior High, and Reagan High School, where he was an all-city halfback for the football team when he was in the ninth grade. Though Red hoped to go to college, he had to drop out of high school to help support his family in 1930 as the Great Depression caused his father to close down his blacksmith shop. Red held many types of jobs after dropping out of high school, including a short showing as a semi-professional boxer. In 1936 he went to work for the Southern Pacific Railroad.
In 1938 Red obtained his first job working with oil when he joined the Otis Pressure Control Company. He worked in the oil fields of Texas and neighboring states until he was drafted into the US Army in 1945, where he served with the 139th Bomb Disposal Squadron and attained the rank of Staff Sergeant. While in the Army, Red learned about controlling explosions and fires. He was with the 139th disposing bombs in Japan until the spring of 1946.
When Red returned to Houston after serving his time in the Army, he was hired by Myron Kinley of the M. M. Kinley Company, one of the innovators for oil well blowouts and fire control. Red worked for Kinley for fourteen years helping put out oil well fires and capping oil blowouts. In 1959 he resigned from M. M. Kinley and formed his own company, The Red Adair Company, Inc. Through the techniques he learned from Kinley and disposing bombs for the army, Red was able to develop many tools and strategies to control oil well and natural gas well blowouts and fires. The Red Adair Company became a world-renowned name for fighting oil well fires. Red put out fires both inland and offshore all around the world. On average, the company put out forty-two fires every year.
By 1961 Red became famous in oil fields around the world. He had put out the offshore CATCO oil fire in 1959 and many other fires both inland and offshore. In November1961 a Phillip’s Petroleum gas well in Algeria had a blowout. The flames from the blowout fire reached heights of over 700 feet and burned 550 million cubic feet of gas per day. The flames were so high, astronaut John Glenn reported seeing the fire from space. The fire came to be known as the Devil’s Cigarette Lighter.
Red made it to the fire in late November of 1961. He spent months preparing to put out the flame and cap the well. Red had enormous equipment built on-site to handle the pillar of fire. Since the fire was in the Sahara Desert, water had to be pumped from wells and stored in three reservoirs, each ten feet deep and the size of a football field. Red had several bulldozers customized with special housing units and fitted with hooks to pull away debris. After all preparations had been made, men and equipment were soaked with water constantly as they carefully approached the fire in their famous red coveralls and helmets. Nitroglycerine was then placed near the base of the fire. When the nitroglycerine was ignited, the explosion sucked the oxygen from the air and drowned out the fire. Red had been using this technique for years, and had learned a great deal about it from Myron Kinley. Once the fire was blown out, Red’s team removed the wellhead and capped the well on May 28, 1962, six months after it had ignited.
Red Adair was already known in oil and gas fields around the world, but blowing out the Devil’s Cigarette Lighter made him an icon. He put out several more notable fires in his career including an offshore rig in Louisiana in 1970 and a 1977 blowout in the North Sea. In 1988 a huge explosion at the Piper Alpha Rig off the coast of Scotland brought Red even more renown. Using the ship he helped design, the Tharos, Red approached what was left of the offshore rig and used the ship’s unique equipment to put out fires and cap the wells. At seventy-three, Red was no longer able to jump from a ship to an oil rig, so he had two of his men climb onto what was left of Piper Alpha to clear debris. Once most of the debris was cleared, the men began to put out the fires using nitroglycerine and the ocean water. On some days the wind would blow in just the right direction and help put the water right where it needed to be. On other days the seventy mile-per-hour wind worked against them. Eventually Red and his team were able to put out the fires and cap the wells.
The Piper Alpha blaze brought Red in the public eye once again. Red continued to put out fires around the world, and in 1991, he helped put out many oil fires in Kuwait. At the closing of the Persian Gulf War, Saddam Hussein’s armies retreated from Kuwait igniting many oil wells in order to keep them out of the hands of the Kuwaitis and Americans. Red was hired to put out the flames. More than one hundred wells were ignited, and putting them out was estimated to take three to five years. Red extinguished 117 burning wells in nine months.
On top of working in the field as much as he could, Red also designed and developed many different types of firefighting equipment. At the age of nineteen he had designed a lever that could haul coal from railroad cars. His equipment was so innovative, that he formed a separate company, The Red Adair Service and Marine Company, in 1972 to sell firefighting equipment to others in the industry. Red liked to rig bulldozers with special fittings to keep heat out. He would also fix long beams on the bulldozers and use those beams to put nitroglycerine into a blaze or even use those beams like a fixed crane to bring in heavy materials. One of Red’s most famous designs was the semi-submersible firefighting vessel, used to fight offshore oil well fires. Red designed several ships for oil companies around the world, many of which are still in use today.
Red’s work brought him many awards. He received the Walton Clark Medal Citation from the Franklin Institute. The city of Houston presented Red with both the Outstanding Houstonian Award and the Houston Distinguished Sales and Citizenship Award. After his popularity skyrocketed when he put out the Devil’s Cigarette Lighter, a film was loosely based on Red’s life. The movie Hellfighters, starring John Wayne, was released in 1968. Red served as a technical advisor. Although much of his fame came from his reputation as a daredevil, Red was also known to be a stickler when it came to safety. Red always boasted that none of his men had ever been killed or seriously injured while working for him.
In 1993 Red Adair finally retired and sold the Red Adair Company. He then started Adair Enterprises as a consulting company that helped other firefighters. Many of Red’s firefighters went on to form their own companies after working for him. Boots Hansen and Coots Matthews broke away from The Red Adair Company in 1978 to form their own firefighting company. They eventually merged with another group of firefighters that had once worked for Red. Although he retired from actual firefighting and fieldwork in 1993, Red stayed active in the firefighting business until he died at the age of eighty-nine on August 7, 2004, in the city of Houston. He was survived by his wife Kemmie and a son and daughter.