Texan works Kuwait's fiery oilfields WAR IN THE GULF

March 30, 1991|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Sun Staff Correspondent

AHMADI, Kuwait -- Where the sun is snuffed out, the air growls restless and foul, and the day becomes night at noon, that is Raymond Henry's workshop.

The chunky Texan with oil-splattered spectacles is here to put out the fires set by the Iraqi Army when they blew up hundreds of oil wells as they retreated from Kuwait.

It is a job of a size no one has ever faced: "In your worst nightmares, who in the world would ever think of 300 or more oil fires?" he said.

So with proper Texas swagger, he figures it might take as long as a year or 18 months.

"We'll just going to take them one at a time," drawls the 47-year-old.

Mr. Henry heads the team of Red Adair oil-fire fighters. There are said to be only five companies with experience at this work, and the Kuwaiti government has hired all of them. Red Adair is the best known.

Under the pall of smoke at the Greater Burgan Oil Field last week, Mr. Henry was supervising the welding of a tin cabin around the seat of a large bulldozer. Sometime next week, he plans to climb into the tractor and back up toward one of the seething oil fires, maneuvering an 80-foot boom.

With a spade attached to the end of the boom, he will dig around the wellhead to see how badly it is damaged. He will try to snuff the fire with a nozzle spraying nitrogen. If that does not work, he will lower an explosive charge into the well as fire hoses try to keep it cool so it does not explode prematurely.

Properly set, the blast will suck up oxygen and the fire will blink out.

"It usually works," he said.

The firefighters have moved into the small oil town in the heart of the Greater Burgan field south of Kuwait City. It is not a pleasant place: Smoke from the fires hangs thick over the town, giving it a dark and oily atmosphere.

Mr. Henry downplays the health hazard from breathing the metallic-tasting air. "Hasn't bothered me," he said, taking a drag on a cigarette. "But we have asked to get a chest X-ray on the way out, just to see how much damage was done."

Despite the magnitude of the environmental disaster, a surprisingly small group will be working on putting out the fires. Each of the four companies will have about eight men, Mr. Henry said.

"If you get too many people around, someone gets careless and you get hurt," he said.

Getting hurt is a constant danger, but since the company was formed in 1959 the worst injury was a broken leg, said Mr. Henry.

The Houston native started working in the company when he got out of high school, and in 26 years Mr. Henry figures he has helped put out more than 100 fires.

"I've worked in Iran, Iraq, Saudi, Kuwait, they're all basically the same," he said. "In Mexico, they've got wells as large as this or bigger. This job's no different, just time-consuming."

Governmental delays do not help. A convoy of 52 trucksbringing supplies to fight the fires from Qatar was held upat the Saudi Arabia border for a week while the officious Saudis puttered over paperwork, said a Western diplomat.

"We would have put on an Army escort and run the convoyright through, border to border, without even a pit stop,"said the disgusted diplomat. "They don't do things thatway."

The Kuwaiti oil minister said that there are about 550 wells ablaze in oil fields in the north and south of Kuwait. Mr. Henry is not sure.

"It's so smoky . . . some days, you get into this area and you're not sure if you count well T-38 three times or not," he said. "I think initially they may have counted some of the wells more than once. I hope so. But it doesn't matter. We still gotta work on them."

The task seems daunting. To enter the burning oil fields is to enter a nether world of smoke and fire. Flames burst from the earth and become dark pillars of smoke, feeding a mourning-veiled sky. Tiny tornadoes of fire dance in each orange caldron, and around the wells thousands of smaller tongues of flame lap at the spreading pools of oil.

The companies already have stopped the flow from about a dozen wells that were damaged and leaking but not set ablaze. Most of those had valves that still could be closed, and one well was stopped by pumping mud down the shaft.

To fight the fires requires volumes of cooling water -- 10,000 gallons a minute. The engineers now are trying to make use of the very arteries of the field. Pipelines that used to carry oil from each well down to the port will be pumped in reverse to carry saltwater from the gulf up to the oil fields.

Mr. Henry figures once they get water and begin attacking the fires, they may be able to put out one well a day.

The fires could be extinguished in less than the two years the government had predicted.

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