Hardly anyone thinks America should be the policeman of the world any more, but the United States does have the fireman's job nailed down firmly. As Kuwait begins this week to address in earnest the problem of hundreds of oil wells set aflame by fleeing Iraqis, it will call in Red Adair, Inc., Boots & Coots and Wild Well Control. These outfits do not work by appointment to Her Majesty, the Queen. All are headquartered in Houston - and preceded by the kind of modern-day-cowboy myths that once inspired "Hellfighters," a John Wayne vehicle based on the hair-singeing adventures of Adair. To hang out with the real-life hellfighters - as some destined-to-be-bewildered Kuwaitis soon must - is to see that even Hollywood could not exaggerate the true grittiness of these men, a gumbo of mostly Texans and Louisianans who call a spade a spade and a fire a far. During a recent scouting expedition, Boots and a few of the boys got bored with the military's help and started searching for Iraqi land mines on their own. They didn't find any; but they did encounter conflagrations that were "real boogers" - and heard "experts" say that the firefighting could take five years. This caused the flame jockeys to spit in the sand, hike up their Levis and say, " 'Bout a year."
The firefighters aren't claiming it will be easy to snuff out the sometimes 400-foot plumes of flame. They simply maintain that when it comes to dealing with deadly gas, 4,000-degree temperatures and sand so hot that it turns to liquid glass, they know, after numerous expeditions to Mexico, Sumatra and Oklahoma, exactly what they are doing. "This is really no different than any of the jobs we've ever gone to," says Wild Well president Joe Bowden. "It's just bigger."
Even if their estimates are correct, though, there is no cause for rejoicing. One day can be a long time when dealing with conditions that are wreaking havoc on the environment and the Kuwaiti economy. By some estimates, as much as 5 million barrels of crude - worth about $87 million - is going up in thick black smoke daily. In Kuwait City headlights go on at noon and air-pollution indexes have skyrocketed. A greasy, charcoal-gray rain is falling for hundreds of miles downwind, disrupting the delicate desert ecology and endangering neighboring countries.
The beaches of the Persian Gulf are hardly a prettier sight. More than 460 million gallons of oil spilled by the Iraqis has been sloshing around for eight weeks spreading into a slick that now covers 120 miles. Only last week did the first helicopters start ferrying cleanup crews, composed of British military volunteers, out to the heavily coated islands off Jubail. Saudi Defense Minister Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz, a brother of the king, flew over one of the worst-hit beaches last week and, said one official, "read the riot act" to bureaucrats involved in the stalled operation. But "this ain't California," says an American diplomat in Riyadh; the environment in the gulf has traditionally ranked barely above women's rights.
The raging fires have led to predictions of environmental disarray - and doom. Thus far the worst-case scenarios have been avoided. The dense, poisonous smoke has stayed below the cloud layer, where it's less likely to block out the sun and cause a condition similar to nuclear winter. Nor does it seem that the billowing blackness will interfere with weather systems that drive the Indian monsoons, causing the subcontinent to be lashed by acid rain. But the potential for those and other disasters remains. Strong spring winds, known as the khamsin, have roared in on schedule, sending the pollution - which contains deadly sulfur dioxide, as well as traces of poisonous metals such as arsenic, lead and copper - swirling across the Middle East. Of greater worry is the prospect of a sudden temperature inversion, common in Kuwait in summer, that would trap the poisons in the air. By some accounts the result would be an oppressive smog that could kill people and animals.
The Iraqis seem to have had no military motive for creating this disaster, only a desperate anger. The fleeing soldiers, realizing they could hold out no longer, trashed parts of the Kuwait Oil Co.-owned hotel at Ahmadi field, fouling the carpet with human excrement. According to Raymond Henry, executive vice president of Red Adair's company, the Iraqis attempted to ignite every last oil well in Kuwait, packing down the base of each with enough Russian-made plastic explosives to destroy an office building. Some wells survived only because of a malfunction in the electronic detonation devices. But those wells remain time bombs, susceptible to being set off accidentally. It is this vast amount of unexploded military ordnance that concerns the hellfighters most. "We're not used to worrying about where we step unless it's the possibility that a rattlesnake might bite you," says Henry.
Serious preparations began last week. The firefighters have decided to first attack the smokiest wells, which are located near the Kuwait airport. After that they'll move southward to the immensely productive Burgan Field, where the fires are costing the most money. Wearing nothing more extraordinary than cotton overalls, they will, in most cases, attack the fire by hosing down the area and then maneuvering dynamite into the well. The ensuing explosion will suck oxygen from the area and snuff out the flame. Then, dripping water and oil, the men will move in quickly with a new set of valves, known as a "Christmas tree," which they will fit onto the existing pipe and gradually close to form a seal. One mistake and they will be blown sky high. "People don't realize the power we're dealing with," says Adair, who at the age of 75 plans to oversee his operations from his Houston office. "You take a water faucet - that's 50 pounds of pressure. We're dealing with 1,500 to 7,000 pounds of pressure." Adair, like the other contractors, won't divulge the flat day rate he's charging the Kuwaitis, but his company is expected to make millions. "If you think experts are expensive," says Raymond Henry, "try calling an amateur."
The job is "going to be tough as hell, with only TV, cards and work, work, work seven days a week," says Paul King, a manager with OGE Drilling Inc., of Midland, Texas, which is coordinating the three American and one Canadian contractors. In Kuwait, Bechtel Group has begun readying pipeline that will allow water to be pumped from the Persian Gulf to the oilfields. Meanwhile, Brian Krause, one of the hellfighters scheduled to arrive in Kuwait this week, went to Las Vegas with his girlfriend for some preparations of his own. "I'm going to get all the sex and drink I can," he said. "Because it's going to be a long two or three months over there before we get any relief."
One thing the hellfighters probably won't get much respite from is unsolicited suggestions. Because this is history's most highly publicized snuffin' and cappin', a lot of people who don't know an oil well from a hole in the ground - who've probably never heard ole Red tell how he successfully snuffed out the Devil's Cigarette Lighter in '62 - want to get involved. Some think the U.S. military should get involved by exploding so-called fuel-air bombs above the wells to put out the fire. Diplomatic considerations, and rapidly shifting winds, render that idea temporarily unworkable. The hellfighters might also be happy to hear that a group of Harvard physicists has a suggestion: build an S-shaped piece of sheet metal, called an Emmons combuster, around the burning well. This creates a small vortex of fire which should remove soot emissions from the atmosphere. Most oil-patch cowboys can understand why that would happen; what they can't grasp is why some people make things so complicated. "Fires are no big deal to us," says Krause. Of course, it's part of the unwritten macho code to take that position, even as the whole world watches, and roots for you to succeed
SNUFFIN' AND CAPPIN' IN THE DESERT For many of the 520 wells still ablaze in Kuwait, firefighters will use water, explosives and raw courage to extinguish the infernos; then they'll use a "Christmas tree" made of valves and pipes to cap the gushers.
Under a constant barrage of water, a crane mounted on a bulldozer removes debris from around the well. Sometimes the water alone is used to put out the flames but its main purpose is cooling the men, equipment and the site.
On tougher fires, the crane operator suspends a barrel filled with explosives in the gap between the wellhead and the bottom of the flame. Then he runs for cover behind a shield and detonates the charge electronically. Boom!
The explosion sucks all the oxygen away from the flame, smothering it. The crane then lowers a new "Christmas tree" onto the well. The valves are slowly closed, stopping the flow of oil.