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A Fire Goes Out

August 13, 2004

Just before World War II, Paul Adair was a 30-cent-an-hour itinerant oilfield worker, a high school dropout with seemingly no great future. With the gumption that only some ignorant steel valves could display, an Arkansas oil wellhead blew near Adair one day, sending a towering geyser of oil and gas high in the air. While panicked co-workers ran far away, anticipating an immediate inferno, Adair strode to the wellhead in a torrential downpour of raw petroleum and tightened the disobedient valves.

For the rest of his 89-year life, which ended naturally last weekend, Adair moved in that same direction -- toward the danger -- earning a global reputation as the indomitable oil well firefighter "Red" Adair.

Red was a careful adventurer who, despite impossible odds, always did what he set out to do, smiled and then headed home. A stickler for safety (he never lost a worker), Adair seemed fearless. How else to explain crawling on your stomach toward a roaring oil well fire, dragging large bundles of nitroglycerin? If positioned just right, the explosion would for a few seconds deprive the flames of oxygen, permitting recapping. Adair also invented many devices and methods to assist firefighting.

Diminutive but burly, Red surely liked red a lot -- his hair, overalls, cars, boats. But not red tape. Nor meetings. We seldom see such characters anymore, blunt-talking doers instead of silver-tongued maneuverers. From 1938 until his retirement in 1994, Adair snuffed about 2,000 fires and blowouts all over the world, on land, at sea, even underwater. In 1968, Hollywood made a movie called "The Hellfighters" based on Adair's life, starring, of course, John Wayne.

Adair was well paid by companies losing millions to each day's high-pressure flames. But if a little wildcatter had a fire, Red might work free. In 1991, Adair was consuming liquid refreshment with friends in a licensed Houston establishment when a waitress announced some president was on the phone. "President of what company?" Adair demanded. It was, in fact, a fellow Houstonian, the president of the United States, seeking help with hundreds of oil fires in liberated Kuwait. Adair flew off with his team. Along with 26 others, they doused 732 well fires in eight months, four years ahead of estimates.

At his funeral, Red's friends, many clad in red, affectionately speculated whether their pal had gone to heaven or the other place. If the Earth starts cooling by this weekend, we'll all know.

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