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Red Adair, oil-well firefighter, dies at 89

Paul N. “Red” Adair, an oil-well firefighter who revolutionized the science of capping exploding and burning wells, has died, his daughter said. Adair, whose company was credited with fighting more than 2,000 fires, was 89.
(FILES) Photo taken 11 November 1991
Red Adair in a November 1991 photograph. Manoocher Deghati / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: The Associated Press

Paul N. “Red” Adair, a world-renowned oil-well firefighter who revolutionized the science of capping exploding and burning wells, has died, his daughter said. He was 89.

Adair, who boasted that none of his employees ever suffered a serious injury fighting the dangerous fires, died Saturday evening of natural causes at a Houston hospital, his daughter, Robyn Adair, told The Associated Press.

Adair 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 left burning after the Iraqis fled Kuwait at the end of the Persian Gulf War in 1991.

The 5-foot-7 Houston native proudly spent his 76th birthday clad in his traditional red overalls, swinging valves in place as his crews capped 117 Kuwaiti wells left burning by retreating Iraqi troops.

“Retire? I don’t know what that word means,” he told reporters at the time. “As long as a man is able to work and he’s productive out there and he feels good — keep at it. I’ve got too many of my friends that retired and went home and got on a rocking chair, and about a year and a half later, I’m always going to the cemetery.”

Adair, who finally did retire in 1994 and sold his company, was instrumental in expediting the shipment of crucial supplies and equipment into Kuwait by testifying before the Gulf Pollution Task Force and meeting with then-President George H.W. Bush about the logistics of the firefighting operation.

Three years work done in nine months
Thanks in part to Adair’s expertise, a firefighting operation expected to last three to five years was completed in nine months, saving millions of barrels of oil and stopping an intercontinental air pollution disaster.

Adair barely changed his hectic pace as he continued to pursue his specialty. His concession to later years was an occasional mid-afternoon nap as a crew boss watched over operations. His hearing had deteriorated somewhat because of years of standing amid thundering well fires.

“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.”

Adair spent a lifetime using explosives, drilling mud and concrete to control and cap wild well fires.

Portrayed by John Wayne
His death-defying feats included battling the July 1988 explosion of the Piper Alpha platform that killed 167 men in the North Sea.

His daring and his reputation for having never met a blowout he couldn’t cap earned him the nickname “Hellfighter.” It inspired the title of a 1968 movie based on Adair’s life, “The Hellfighters,” in which John Wayne played him.

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

Adair, who said he never showed fear in life, joked in 1991 that the hereafter would be no different.

“I’ve done made a deal with the devil,” Adair said. “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 out.”