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Inferno in the Desert

Submitted by Nigel Bernard on Thu, 07/30/2020 - 23:00

Red Adair and the Gassi Touil Gas Fire

Story 8 in the nonfiction serial, Into Danger with the Adventurers - Twelve Epic Lives of the Twentieth Century

Part One

Red Adair knew he had just three minutes to get in and get out. But he had to try. It was the only way to extinguish the raging inferno. The plan was to detonate the nitro-glycerine once he was safely back in the trench.  But what if it exploded before then? He reckoned it would be at least three minutes before this might happen - three minutes from when he started to drive towards the fire.  After that, the fire could burn through the barrel and ignite the explosive. He had to get to the trench before then. If he was still out in the open the explosive force ripping across the desert would blow him to smithereens.

The fire looked like a great, angry dragon rearing up above the desert sands and daring anybody to come near. The fire was so big that the astronaut John Glenn, the first American to orbit the earth, had seen it from space. It seemed to have its own weather system as clouds formed above it. It was so ferocious that winds blew towards it from all directions as air was sucked into its base. It would drag a man into the flame if he got too close. Vicious whirlwinds swirled in and around the flames which flared over 200 metres into the air.  They gave the fire a name. They called it the 'Devil’s Cigarette Lighter'.

The fire was at the Gassi Touil gas field located on the barren sands of the Sahara Desert in Algeria. It had started in November 1961 when a gas well exploded. A spark from static electricity had ignited the gas. Somewhere amongst the pipes and equipment a charge of electricity had built up. Then, just as happens on a larger scale with a flash of lightning, the static charge was discharged causing a spark. A flash of lightning normally only heats the surrounding air, leading to a bang as the air expands. But the tiny spark at the Gassi Touil gas field led to a devastating explosion because it ignited the gas. The explosion was so powerful that the drill pipe was blown 700 metres across the desert.

Many thought the fire could not be extinguished. But Red had other ideas. He came up with a daring plan. He would reverse a caterpillar truck right up close to the flame. Sticking out at the back of the truck would be a twenty-metre metal arm. At the end of this would be a barrel full of high explosive. When the barrel exploded the blast would momentarily blow oxygen away from the well and the fire would go out. That was the plan. Whether or not the plan would work was by no means certain. And even if the fire was extinguished, would Red get back to safety in time?

It was now the end of April 1962. Red and his men had spent several months preparing for this moment. As he climbed onto the specially adapted caterpillar truck he knew that his life as well as his reputation was on the line. He had three minutes to get in and get out ...

Part Two

Red Adair was born in 1915 in Houston, Texas in America. His original name was Paul Neal Adair, but he had red hair and he soon got the nickname ‘Red’. He was part of a large family and had four brothers and three sisters. Red had a tough upbringing and sometimes went hungry because his parents did not have enough money. His mother suffered from ill-health. Once, when she was too ill to look after her children, Red had to live in an orphanage. His father was a blacksmith. A blacksmith makes things out of metal, such as furniture and tools. He hammers metal into shape after it has been softened by heating in a forge. When he was a young boy, Red had to get up early to start the fire in the forge so that it was ready for his father to use first thing in the morning. One day Red tried to get the fire even hotter than usual and the forge blew up. He was unhurt, but his father was very angry.

Helping his father with the forge meant that Red got used to fire from an early age. He also knew how to put fires out. When he was six-years-old, he and his friends saw an oil well burning. He told his friends that the way to put it out was to make a truck as big as a house and use it to dump water over the fire. Even then, he was showing that he knew what it took to extinguish a major fire.

Despite his hard upbringing, he was very good at sport and played halfback for the American football team in his high school. To play in this position you need to be strong and fast. You also need to remember all the different moves the coach has planned and you need to know precisely where to run during each play. Following carefully laid plans would be crucial to Red’s future success at fighting fires.

In 1930, America’s economy worsened. This time was known as the Great Depression. Many people lost their jobs and became poor. Red’s father had to close his shop and Red left school to work and get money for his family.  He tried a lot of different jobs. At one time he was a delivery boy. He would cycle round the neighbourhood delivering pies or medicine from the chemist. For a while he was even a semi-professional boxer. He eventually got a more secure job working for the train company, Southern Pacific Railroad. This involved laying and repairing track. And then, in 1938, he began working with an oil company called Otis Pressure Control.

While working for Otis Pressure Control Red worked on many oil fields in Texas and other states. One day, in December 1940, he and the other men were working on a gas well in a town called Smackover in the state of Arkansas. Then they noticed gas and liquid spurting out from plates on the valves which had become loose. The gas could explode at any moment. Everybody ran, except Red. He fetched a massive spanner and tightened the bolts which held the plates. Afterwards he was told off by his boss because what he had done was so dangerous. But Red had shown everybody he could remain calm in an emergency and could be relied upon to do dangerous jobs.

During the Second World War, Red joined the army and worked in a bomb disposal unit. He went to Japan to help defuse unexploded bombs left over from the war. As well as defusing bombs, he also learned about controlling fires by using explosions.

In 1946 he left the army and joined the Kinley Company which specialized in dealing with oil well blowouts and fires. During this time he had a narrow escape when a well he was working on exploded. He was sent flying through the air, but he stood up and dusted himself down without an injury.  In 1959, he set up his own company to fight oil and gas fires.

Red’s company soon got a good reputation for tackling fires. No job was ever too big or too dangerous. He and his men, dressed in their trademark red overalls and red helmets, were prepared to go wherever in the world they were needed. He invented new tools and new techniques to fight the fires. Red and his men were never short of work.

Oil and gas is found underground in several parts of the world. To make an oil or gas well, the workers drill a deep bore hole. Once they reach the oil or gas, valves are placed at the top of the well to control the flow and these are connected to pipes which take the oil or gas away from the site. Oil and gas are highly flammable and are often under high pressure underground. If the valves fail to work properly a build up of pressure may lead to a blowout. When this happens the valves and equipment are blasted away and the oil or gas may catch fire. Even without a blowout, the risk of fire is very great. One spark is all it takes. A careless worker or a natural event such as lightning can lead to an inferno enveloping the site in an instant. Drilling for oil and gas, whether on land or sea, is very dangerous. There is always the risk of a serious fire.

The terrifying dangers became all too clear in 1959 when eighteen wells caught fire in the CATCO offshore platform in Lousiana. One fire is bad enough, but here there were eighteen separate fires. Red used explosives to tackle each fire and they patiently capped each well, one after the other. He had tamed the CATCO fire, but the Devil’s Cigarette Lighter would provide his biggest test yet.

In the Sahara Desert there is sand and rock as far as the eye can see. It is baking hot during the day. During the night it is very cold. Like all deserts, there is very little water. But water would be vital if Red was to have any hope of getting near the fire. He drilled deep beneath the desert until he found a good supply. Meanwhile, about one-and-a-half kilometres from the fire, bulldozers dug three massive pits for storing the water. Each pit was three metres deep and was as big as a football pitch. Once the pits had been dug the men lined them with plastic sheeting so that the water would not drain away. The pits were then filled with water. They pumped the water into hoses which were attached to high-pressure water cannons. These were constantly trained on the men and equipment as they worked near the fire.

The fire was surrounded by the wreckage of the drilling rig. This had to be removed before they could tackle the fire itself. They used caterpillar trucks to approach the fire. To protect the drivers from the heat they built protective boxes made from corrugated sheets of metal which they fixed onto the trucks. These had small holes through which the driver could look. Some of the caterpillar trucks were used to get the water cannon near the fire. One truck had a big metal hook attached to it which was used to drag wreckage away from the fire. And all the time, the caterpillar trucks would be continually hosed with water to keep them cool.

The work was hard and required over 200 men. Sometimes there were sandstorms and then all work had to stop. But eventually all the preparations were complete. It was time to get ready to set off the explosion. All through the night, every available water cannon was directed towards the area around the base of the fire to try and cool it as much as possible. When the morning came, the wind was in the wrong direction. It had to be blowing away from the camp so that debris from the explosion did not fly in that direction. All that day they waited, and the water cannon continued to cool the area.

As the wind direction began to change Red prepared the explosive. The explosive was placed in a metal drum over a metre in diameter.  The main explosive was nitro-glycerine. This was put in a smaller drum and placed inside the large drum. He then packed a dry chemical explosive around the nitro-glycerine. The purpose of this dry explosive was to help insulate the nitro-glycerine from the heat and to smother any small ground fires when it exploded. The explosives would be set off by a charge. This had wires attached which would be fed back to a detonator three hundred metres away. Red then wrapped the drum with asbestos to protect it from the fire. The drum was then attached to the end of the metal arm of the truck. Now everything was ready. It was time for Red to go.

Part Three

With his colleague, Asger ‘Boots’ Hansen directing him, Red started up the engine of the truck and began to drive backwards towards the inferno. As they got nearer, the noise of the fire got louder and louder. The noise was deafening. Red knew there was no point in Hansen and himself trying to talk to each other. They relied instead on a carefully worked-out sign language.

Hansen kept looking ahead, squinting through the hole in the corrugated iron.  They moved closer and closer to the raging inferno. Driving up to the base of the fire seemed foolhardy enough. But to do that with a drum of high explosive precariously hanging from a metal arm seemed like madness. Surely it would explode any second? The insulation was working well, but it would only work for a short time. Three minutes was probably the maximum time they had. Red would be glad to see the back of the explosive.  When you handle nitro-glycerine it gives you a headache. By the time he had finished packing the drum with explosive Red had a thumping headache, which the heat of the desert only made worse.

The hose continued to pour water and this helped keep the heat down. In fact, strangely, as they got close to the base of the fire, they felt a cool breeze. This was because the air from the surrounding desert was being sucked into the inferno. As the wind blew past them it gave some welcome relief from the intense heat in front of them.

The truck moved closer and closer towards the fire. The wires from the drum stretched back to the trench where Ed ‘Coots’ Matthews was waiting with the detonator. When the time came Red and Hansen would have to jump out and race back, following the wires back to the trench. Matthews would wait until they were safely back in the trench before he detonated the explosive. But would they get back in time?

Finally, the truck reached the fire itself. The drum was now right by the base of the flame. Red and Hansen leapt from the truck and started to run back.  There was no point in looking behind them. They just ran as fast they could. They reached the trench and dived in.  Matthews set off the detonator. There was a massive explosion and a huge cloud of vapour and debris. Red and his men looked on anxiously. What about the fire? Was it still burning? As the dust cleared, the towering flame had disappeared. The fire was out.

But gas and vapour, of course, were still shooting into the sky from the well. Red and his men now had to cap it. During the coming days they cut away the mangled metal of the damaged wellhead. They did this using a cable coated with special sand resin. The cable was wrapped around the well with each end attached to a winch. The cable was then drawn back and forth until it cut through the metal.  Then, on 28 May, they placed a blowout preventer tight over the well.  And with that, the Devil’s Cigarette Lighter was finally no more.

Part Four

The Devil’s Cigarette Lighter made Red famous. In 1968 Universal made a film loosely based on his life, called Hellfighters. It starred John Wayne and Red was an advisor on the film.  He had to make sure the film accurately showed what it was like to fight an oil well fire. Red and John Wayne became firm friends.

In real life Red continued to fight fires for the next thirty years. He was always inventing new equipment and he even helped design a special ship, the Tharos, for fighting rig fires at sea. On 6 July 1988 a massive gas explosion destroyed the Piper Alpha oil platform located in the North Sea near Aberdeen in Scotland. By coincidence the Tharos was nearby, although Red was not onboard. The explosion occurred because a valve on a piece of equipment had been temporarily replaced with a metal cover. The staff were not informed that they should not use the equipment and a build up of pressure led to explosions. Of the 226 men on the rig, 165 were killed. Two others were killed on a ship which went to help. Water was sprayed from water cannons on the Tharos onto the rig, but it would take more than that to deal with the disaster. Over thirty separate wells were leaking gas, some on fire. Red was telephoned at his home in America and he and his men flew to help. Despite high winds and waves Red eventually put out all the fires and capped all the wells.

Three years later he went to Kuwait after the Gulf War. The Iraqis, under its leader, Saddam Hussein, had invaded the country in 1990. In 1991 they were eventually forced to retreat. Before they left the country they set fire to over a hundred of its oil wells. The fires formed a huge black plume over the desert. People were afraid that there would be long-term damage to the environment. Surely it would take several years to put them all out? But Red and his men put most of them out within nine months.

Outside of work, he took a great interest in a number of charities, including those involving the welfare of children. His tough upbringing made him aware of the need to provide support for young people.

Red retired in 1993 and sold his company. He had won many awards and he could take great satisfaction from his health and safety record. Not one of his men was killed or seriously injured during any of the hundreds of fires his company fought. He was a brave, but not a foolish, risk taker. He used to say that he was not a daredevil but a beware-devil.

After his retirement he continued to take an active interest in the oil and gas industry up until his death in 2004. He was a unique and iconic figure and many oil and gas companies were grateful for his services over the years. But it is that fire in the Algerian Sahara Desert for which he will be most remembered. After that, if there was an oil or gas blowout anywhere in the world, everybody knew what to do – call Red Adair.


A particularly helpful source was:

The Devil’s Cigarette Lighter [Film] (The Red Adair Co., Inc. 1962) available from PericopeFilm online at