It was workover day on the Phillips Petroleum oil rig known as Bravo 14, and routine maintenance had already begun. Suddenly the well blew out. A fountain of oil blasted 200 feet into the air, and some 49,000 gallons an hour began spewing into the North Sea. The huge, spreading slick posed dire environmental peril to the coasts of Norway and Denmark. Phillips knew at once what to do. A desperate phone call was put through to Houston, Texas, summoning Paul Neal “Red” Adair to the rescue.
Buffeted by a 60-mile-an-hour gale and drenched by the downpour of oil, Adair’s cocky “Cowboys,” as the Norwegians dubbed them, began a perilous struggle to cap Bravo 14. Four attempts failed. But on the fifth, hydraulically operated “blind rams”—half-disks of steel faced with a rubber seal—shut off the gusher long enough for a four-ton “stopper” to be attached. For the first time in eight days all was quiet. A grinning Adair gave the “thumbs-up” sign—and, in triumph, returned home to tote up the bill. (He’s very cagey on the subject, saying only that the $500,000-plus fees reported in the past are untrue.)
For 31 years the flamboyant Adair, 61, has been putting an end to other people’s disasters. Among his most memorable successes: snuffing out a 450-foot tower of flame called “The Devil’s Cigarette Lighter” in the Sahara oil fields in 1961-62, and plugging the infamous Santa Barbara, Calif. offshore oil leak in 1969. Last year the Red Adair Co.—one apprentice and six full-time disaster experts—sped to the rescue no less than 35 times.
His profession, says Adair with a raspy chuckle, “is exciting. It’s fun. You’re living all the time. There’s a certain risk involved, but when you have something to do you go ahead and do it.” He adds: “People say we are daredevils, but that’s wrong. Evel Knievel is a daredevil. Everything we do we plan.”
Well, almost everything. In the course of their travels Adair and his men have stumbled across armed guerrillas (in Sumatra), airplane hijackers and crocodiles, as well as jungle terrain where “equipment just sinks out of sight.” A burly fireplug of a man at 5’6″ and 180 pounds (“Sometimes I wish I was even smaller so I could hide better”), Adair has sometimes barely survived. Smashed by a crane in 1954, Adair had both hips broken and his pelvis split. Doctors said he would never walk again, but Adair was back on his feet in four months. Some years later an experimental leather suit he was wearing shrank from the heat of a blazing well and nearly choked him in a deadly embrace. Shrugs Adair, “Injuries aren’t serious if you don’t have to stay in the hospital more than a week.”
One of eight children of a “dirt poor” Houston blacksmith, Adair believes privation teaches valuable lessons. “I think everybody ought to go hungry at least once,” he says. “It does things for you that you never forget.” A fine athlete, Adair left school after the ninth grade. By 1939 he was an oil field roustabout. During a blowout Adair’s cool take-charge ways caught the eye of pioneer wild-well fighter Myron Kinley, who was doubly impressed when Adair was hurled skyward by another explosion, landed on his feet and kept right on working. Kinley hired him, and Adair eventually took over the business after serving during the war with an Army bomb disposal unit. “With bombs or fires,” he discovered, “you only get one mistake.”
For managing to avoid that first and final error, the erstwhile poor boy estimates he is now worth “a million or two.” He has substantial real estate investments, a $200,000 house on the shore of Houston’s Clear Lake and a 186-acre spread on Lake Travis, near Austin. He numbers several astronauts among his pals—”We’re all in high-risk jobs, and we find things to talk about”—and sometimes joins them for powerboat races. Another buddy is John Wayne, who portrayed a character loosely based on Adair in the 1969 film The Hellfighters. Though Red’s culinary tastes run to thick, drippy hamburgers and beer (he rarely touches hard liquor), the Adairs’ Houston home is decorated with exquisite Oriental antiques—souvenirs of his Far East excursions.
To his tolerant wife Kemmie’s dismay, Red spends as much time on the road as at home. “I raised the kids by myself, and it’s hard,” she says, “but I don’t think you can tell a man what to do with his life, and I don’t think he’d be happy doing anything else.” Now there’s another hellfighter in the brood to fret about—son Jimmy, 36, who is being groomed to take over Red’s business. “When he’s out on a job and I’m in the office,” admits Red, “I pace like a lion.” (The Adairs’ daughter, Robin, is 32, and there are three grandchildren.)
For the moment Red has no plans to retire and expects his services to remain in demand. “Any time you have drilling you are going to have blowouts,” says Red. “Sometime, somebody is going to get a little careless. But it shouldn’t stop people from drilling. After all, nature causes more catastrophes than man, so we may be overdoing all this ecology business. The good Lord put oil and gas there for us to find and use, and we’d better do it.” But no one knows better than Red Adair that oil doesn’t always flow according to man’s plan. As a sign in his red-carpeted office reminds him, “When you are up to your ass in alligators, it’s difficult to remember that your objective was to drain the swamp.”