Paul Neal Adair, better known by his nickname “Red” Adair, was born in 1915 in Houston, Texas to Charles Edward and Mary Emeline Smith Adair. Charles was a carpenter and blacksmith. Both he and Mary had been born in Kansas where they married. By 1910, they were living in Houston. Red got his nickname from being red headed and was the middle child of at least five siblings. When he was young, the family lived northwest of downtown Houston in an area known as The Heights, where Red attended school through the 9th grade at Houston Reagan High School. He as a good athlete and student, but dropped out of high school to help support his family in the midst of the Depression.
Some of his early jobs included working for the Southern Pacific Railroad before starting to work in the local oilfields around Houston. He enlisted in the United States Army after Pearl Harbor and served in the 139th Bomb Disposal Unit at the rank of Staff Sergeant. Adair remained in the Army until 1946. His experience with explosives extended to post war Japan and would benefit him later in life.
After the war, Red returned to Houston where he worked with Myron Kinley. There he learned techniques of controlling oil well blowouts and oil well fire control as an employee of the Myron Kinley Fire Extinguising Company of Houston. In 1959, he formed the Red Adair Company as he became known as a fire control expert. The color red was featured in his logo, uniforms and helmets. It was not unusual for his crews to be deployed to dozens of locations per year, all over the world, to put out oilfield fires. Their projects ranged from inland locations to offshore wells, drilling platforms and vessels.
(Image credit: americandriller.com)
In 1962, Phillips Petroleum Company had a well in the Gassi Touil field of the Sahara Desert of Algeria. A blowout was ignited that caused flames that reached seven hundred feet high and burned an estimated five hundred fifty million cubic feet of natural gas each day. It acquired the nickname of the “Devil’s Cigarette Lighter.” It was reported that astronaut John Glenn saw it from space as he orbited the globe. Adair’s crew worked for several months clearing debris from the initial explosion and fire before setting off their own explosion to take away oxygen from the well fire and allow them to cap the well in May of 1962.
The Algeria well would become the basis for one of the climactic scenes in John Wayne’s 1968 movie, Hellfighter, loosely based on Adair’s life and career. In the film, Wayne plays a character named Chance Buckman, an oil rig fire fighter, who is in the hospital recovering from an accident. The story unfolds to include a massive fire that needs to be extinguished. Against this drama are several other stories, including the marital difficulties of the main character and spouse (played by Vera Miles), the romantic involvement of the couple’s daughter (played by Katharine Ross) and her love interest, a cocky young fire fighter (played by Jim Hutton). Filming locations included Houston, Conroe and Baytown in Texas, Casper, Jackson and Gillete in Wyoming in addition to sets at Universal Studios in California. While not considered a blockbuster, the film was reasonably successful at the box office and is said to have earned more than its budget. Adair served as a consultant on the film and made some appearances with Wayne and the cast.
In 1977, the Adiar crew put out a fire in the North Sea on the Ekofisk Bravo drilling platform. Another famous Adair project was the Piper Alpha rig fire in the North Sea off the coast of Scotland in 1988. The fire and explosion had caused the loss of 167 lives. Adair’s crew had to employ a specially equipped ship to approach the rig, put out the blaze and cap the wells. Despite the difficult conditions and stormy weather, sometimes including eighty mile per hour winds and seventy foot waves, the job was successfully completed.
Fast forwarding to the Gulf War in 1991, Adair and his crew joined two dozen other teams that had come to Kuwait from sixteen countries. At the request of President George H. W. Bush, their job was to extinguish fires set at the direction of Saddam Hussein as his Iraqi troops withdrew from the country. As far as the eye could see, there was black smoke from oilfield fires. It was an environmental disaster intended to slow the troops pursuing Hussein and deprive the Kuwaitis of their valuable resource. Adair and other crews set about extinguishing the fires one by one and the last fire was finally put out in November of that year. In all, some seven hundred thirty-two well fires had been extinguished, about one hundred seventeen by Adair and his crew. It was initially estimated that the operation could take years, but Adair and the other crews completed it in eight months.
Adair was interviewed many times during his life. The following quote comes from the Bakersfield Californian in its September 8, 1977 issue. Speaking of his long career, Adair said, “A lot of people might think it’s a little crazy. But after looking into all the violence I’ve seen and all the frightening things I’ve done, I still love it. I don’t know exactly why I love it, but I wouldn’t do anything else.”
Under his leadership, Adair and his crew were credited with putting out more than two thousand fires all over the world. Adair sold the company in 1994 after a long and storied career. He passed away in 2004 at the age of 89.
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