Joe Treen
April 29, 1991 12:00 PM

UP CLOSE, THE BURNING KUWAITI oil well seems like some sort of cyclone from hell: a 40-foot wall of bright red, orange and yellow flames that erupts from the earth like a 747 at takeoff. American fire fighter Larry Arnold creeps toward it cautiously, protected from the blast of heat by a hand-held corrugated tin shield. A few feet behind him, his partner Brian Krause follows in a bulldozer, inching as close to the blazing wellhead as he can bear. “When you smell your mustache burning,” Krause says, grinning, “you know you’re too close.”

Arnold, 42, and Krause, 35, work for the Red Adair Co. It’s the oldest and best known of the three Houston companies the Kuwaiti government has hired to stomp out more than 500 oil-well fires—Saddam’s scorched-earth legacy of the gulf war. Adair and rivals Boots and Coots and Wild Well Control are the acknowledged worldwide masters in the field of oil-well fire fighting. Here in the Greater Burgan Oil Field, with the gouting flames, smoke and noise, the scene is nothing short of infernal. “You half expect to see little guys with pitchforks and tails coming out of the ground,” says Dave Wilson, an engineer. To add to the confusion, Saddam’s demolition experts blew up each well differently, creating individual puzzles. Meanwhile, another 50 to 100 wells that did not catch fire have turned into runaway geysers of oil, forming oleaginous black lakes. “Sometimes the oil is so deep you can’t see the mines and unexploded bombs,” says fire fighter Ace Barnes of Boots and Coots.

The job of stanching the oil hemorrhage—some 6 million barrels a day, a multimillion dollar loss—falls on the slippery shoulders of the most colorful group of Texans assembled since Santa Anna stormed the Alamo. They chew tobacco and speak their own language, an oil-patch argot that bears a resemblance to English. You don’t cap a burning well, you “kill” it. Novice fighters are “worms.” Those who make it are “hands” or “fire fighters;” those who don’t are “gonsels.” And gonsels are never fired—they are “run off.”

The pay is substantial: $800 a day and up. For many that translates into gold Rolex watches with diamond faces, vacation homes, race cars and speedboats. The three companies are fiercely competitive, and the rivalry extends to clothes and cars. Red Adair’s crew, for example, sport fire engine—red coveralls and drive identical red Cadillacs. That means the boys at Boots and Coots favor white coveralls and drive white Lincoln Continentals and BMWs. Not to be outdone, the team at Wild Well Control affect yellow coveralls with black trim and drive black Mercury Grand Marquis. “Good thing there’s no whiskey here,” says Krause of Kuwait’s dry laws, “the teams might be getting in rhubarbs over who’s capping the toughest wells.”

Right now Wild Well Control is making that claim and isn’t being particularly quiet about it. So far “Big Joe” Bowden’s team (which includes his two sons, Joe Jr., 32, and Sam, 25) has capped more than a dozen well geysers. Even under the best of circumstances, the work is dangerous. In 1983 Wild Well lost three employees in two separate gas-well accidents, one of them Bowden’s son-in-law. “I know they died doing what they wanted to do,” Bowden says quietly. Five years ago both he and son Joe Bowden Jr. suffered second-and third-degree burns in a natural-gas explosion in Roundtalk, Texas. The company survived the mishaps, and the survivors try not to look back.

For most fire fighters, that means mind over matter. “If you don’t think about gettin’ hot and keep your mind on the job, you’re okay,” says Arnold. “Like the guy who walks across hot coals—he ain’t thinkin’ about burning his feet. To him those coals are clover. Same thing.”

When the fire fighters are not in the fields, they bunk at Ahmadi House, a nearby hotel where they chow down on cheese omelette breakfasts, pizza lunches and meat-and-potatoes dinners. Most of the talk centers on great fires past and their scary experiences in Kuwait with unexploded cluster bomblets. The fire fighters call them lawn darts, for the way the buried bomb tails stick out of the sand, and know they are deadly. However, the Texans have also found various ways to amuse themselves with the bric-a-brac of war. They have a formidable collection of used Iraqi helmets, for example. Brian Krause once pried a machine gun from an Iraqi tank for a bit of target practice. A demolition crew blew up a wrecked tank for fun.

They also spend a considerable amount of time on the phone, calling loved ones. Marital life for fire fighters can be trickier than the toughest burning well. With long absences from home, divorce is an occupational hazard. “You’re gone a lot,” says the thrice-divorced Boots Hansen. “It puts the beans on the table, but evidently, none of my ex-wives liked it. But hell, I’m never gonna change. This is all I know.”

Krause spends most of his time pining for his girlfriend of seven months, Cheryl Treat, 34, an interior designer. Before leaving for Kuwait last month, they went on a no-holds-barred vacation to Las Vegas. “Everybody thought we were going to get married then,” he says. “But we disappointed them. I do want to marry Cheryl but I’m old-fashioned and want to propose in a special way.” Like in the pages of a national magazine. “Cheryl,” he says, as a reporter furiously takes down his words, “Will you marry me?” Well, Cheryl, you got it on paper. You gonna run this gonsel off? Or you gonna take the hand of this hand in marriage?

JOE TREEN

LORENZO BENET in Kuwait

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