Foot soldiers in hell

European Stars and Stripes, Darmstadt, Germany

A YEAR AGO Coots Matthewes was about to call it quits. Half a century of battling fires had taken its toll, pushing the 75-year-old Texan to the brink of retirement.

But then Saddam Hussein rampaged through the oil fields of Kuwait, waging a new and lethal form of environmental warfare. Matthewes set aside retirement to face the largest oil field disaster in history.

“I’ve seen a lot of things in my life — a whole lot of fires,” Matthewes said. “But I ain’t never seen nothing like that. I hope I never do again.”

Matthewes was one of the first firefighters into Kuwait after the liberation. What greeted him in the oil fields was a nightmarish scene, a bizarre landscape at the same time reminiscent of the surfaces of both the sun and moon.

The earth, covered with black soot and congealed oil, was spitting flame and smoke thousands of feet into the air; seven hundred ominous, fiery footprints marching to the horizon.

Lakes of oil the size of football fields covered roads and pipelines. Everywhere were abandoned weapons, unexploded ordinance and boobytraps, the leftovers of war.

“I knew we had to do it, ” Matthewes said, “but at that moment, I wasn’t sure I wanted to.”

Five months later the scene remains much the same. Some progress has been made, but for the firefighters — who all live In a hotel less than a mile from the largest field of fires — the environmental holocaust is with them day and night.

THEY CALL THEM WILD WELLS, and the Iraqi army ignited more than 600 of them and 100 storage facilities in Kuwait between Jan. 17 and Feb 28., creating more business than the firefighters have seen in 15 years.

Before the war, about 250 oil well fire specialists were at work in the United States, nearly all were working for three Texas­-based firms: the Red Adair Co., Joe Bowden’s Wild Well Control Co., and Coot Matthewes’ outfit Coots and Boots.

All three companies are working in Kuwait, along with a Canadian firm, Safety Boss.

A few large oil corporations have fire control teams and finance research into firefighting methods. Other countries also have wild well fire teams, but the American companies dominate the field, putting out more than 80 percent of the world’s oil well fires. The most experienced workers command up to $2,000 a day. Kuwait’s bill for the four companies already has topped $500 million.

The task in Kuwait has forced the firefighting companies to double their crews. And several hundred more people were hired to operate heavy equipment, lay water hose and perform other support tasks. About 1 ,500 men in all are involved in fighting the fires.

Many of these men lost their jobs during the slump that hit the U.S. oil fields in the early 1980s. Some had given up hope of returning to the fields and were working, or looking for work, in other areas. The crews in Kuwait include teachers, truck drivers and forest rangers.

A MOTLEY GROUP of unlikely heroes, most of the firefighters are quick with a colorful story for the press and an off-color joke for each other. They are a jovial, even rambunctious group, a reflection perhaps of their daily brushes with mortality.

“I suppose we are a sight to outsiders,” said Darwin McCarty of Anaheim, Calif. “We look rough. Maybe we cuss a lot. And we’re always joking and playing. But that stuff stops when we go into the field. I mean, we all know what can happen.”

Kuwait’s oil fields are blanketed with unexploded bombs and hundreds of mines and booby traps. Experts hired by the Kuwaitis are clearing the oil fields, but no one believes that all the explosives will be found.

Most of the booby traps are crude. Typically, a grenade with its safety pin removed will be wedged next to a valve on a wellhead or pump. If the valve is turned, the grenade falls.

Some are more elaborate.

In one case, an armed grenade had been pushed into the fuel intake of a bus parked near the oil fields. A firefighter spotted the bus and grabbed it to transport workers to and from the fields.

“This fellow tried to fill the tank with gas, but couldn’t get the hose in,” recalled Jordon Warner, of Houston. “When he looked down into that thing and saw that grenade, he said his stomach and heart switched places.”

Had he pushed a little harder, the live grenade would have dropped into the gas tank.

Nine men have died and six have been injured working around the oil wells, said company spokesmen. Six of the deaths involved mines or traps, and two were in areas declared safe by explosives’ experts.

None of the incidents, however, involved firefighters. Two of the dead were journalists. The others were support workers.

“This job is dangerous anyway,” said Mike Petris of Lafayette, La. “We’re used to being real cautious. Some of these other fellas ain’t.”

Aside from the deadly refuse of war, the fires in Kuwait are especially difficult and dangerous because of how the they were started, and because they have been burning so long.

The Iraqis ignited the fires with explosives, creating multiple cracks in each wellhead. A separate flame burns from each crack and all the flames must be extinguished simultaneously.

Also, the ground around the wells is caked with petroleum solids that do not burn. The firefighters call the rock-hard substance “coke,” and after months of extreme heat it has become so thick that many fires appear to spring, not from a well, but from the earth itself.

All the flames on a well have to be put out at the same time,” said Ray Swift of Houston, Texas. “One small flame will re­-light the others as soon as you put them out. The coke can even restart the fires, because it is so hot.

If a man is too close to a well and it re-ignites, his chances of survival are slim.

Other dangers are hidden in the lakes of oil, something even the firefighters are not accustomed to. Oil flows covered mine fields and bombs. Eventually, the heat hardened the upper crust, giving it the appearance of solid ground, but which covers pockets of flammable gases. Four men, including the two British journalists, burned to death when the heat from their car’s exhaust ignited a small gas pocket. That triggered an even larger fire in the lake of oil, engulfing the men and their vehicles in flames.

The crews begin their attack by raking away hundreds of pounds of coke from the wellhead using a modified crane. High­ pressure hoses mounted on tin sheds, called monitors, are used to constantly spray the base of the flames.

As the water hits the 2,000-plus degree flames, huge clouds of steam billow into the air to blend with the black smoke.

“The water doesn’t drown the flames; not like most people think,” said Ray Henry of Houston. “Steam consumes oxygen. If enough water is sprayed at each flame long enough, the steam will use up all the oxygen, and the fire will go out.

Henry’s explanation makes the work seem routine, and perhaps it would be if the firefighters could control the forces of nature. The flames, which can soar to over 500 feet, are tossed and whipped by unpredictable winds. Although prevailing wind patterns are monitored and reported daily to the firefighters, winds sweep
across the flat Kuwaiti landscape so fast that there is little warning of a change.

“It gets pretty hot inside the monitor,” said Tom Dapogny of Houston. “We try to set up up-wind of the fires. But if the wind changes, the temperature can jump 40 or 50 degrees just like that.”

Heat injuries are the most common problem in the oil fields. Normal temperatures in Kuwait are often over 100 degrees. Near a fire, the men work in temperatures of up to 150 degrees, often for hours at a time.

THESE WILD WELLS are never willing victims. The flames pop and roar and taunt the firefighters, who relentlessly beat at them with high pressure hoses. The orange-red flames and the white cloud of steam twist and bend together in a violent ballet until the flames falter.

The fire begins to pop more and roar less until it disappears altogether, causing the air temperature to suddenly plummet. But most times, with an even louder pop, the fire roars back to life — full force, brilliant, angry.

These duels often go on for days, and some wells have taken weeks to extinguish. If the firefighters are fortunate, all they need is patience and a lot of sunscreen. If they are not, they need someone like Bill Smith.

Smith is a retired Marine Corps demolition specialist working with Wild Well Control. If a fire proves impervious to water, he is called to blow it out with explosives.

A surly, but sincere veteran, the 55-year-old Smith knows what he does can kill him, but doesn’t seem too concerned. “I ain’t never hurt myself or nobody else,” he said. “I know what I’m doing.”

When Smith comes to a well site, virtually everyone else leaves. He doesn’t need much help, and the fewer people standing around, the fewer at risk. Only the site leader, a couple of equipment operators and Smith will remain.

“I wrote a lot of safety manuals when I was in the Marines,” said the Spring, Texas, resident. “What we’re doing out here breaks almost every rule in those books. When you’re working with explosives you’re never supposed to be near heat or fire. Out here, we have plenty of both.”

Smith usually puts dynamite and plastic explosives on the end of a crane, and a crane operator moves the charge within a couple of feet of the 3,000-degree flames. The operator then, “gets the hell out of Dodge,” Smith said.

Smith, crouching behind a bulldozer, detonates the charge electrically. The ground shakes for hundreds of yards in each direction, and people miles away will hear the blast.

Most of the time, one blast is enough. The explosion consumes the oxygen, snuffing out the fire. In a split second, the raging inferno becomes a gushing spout of crude.

Early on, the firefighters rejoiced when a fire was extinguished. But celebrating in the shadow of the spewing wells gave way quickly to the realization that they faced the immediate and nasty task of capping the gusher. The work, as well as the danger, do not end when the fire is out.

Moments after a well fire is put out everything in sight becomes coated with the slick, black substance, while a thin oily mist travels on the wind for thousands of feet.

The final process is just about as dangerous as fighting the fire. As a crane lifts the new wellhead over the gushing pipe, two or three men must guide the cap onto the eight-inch wellhead with oil blasting out at up to 8,000 pounds of pressure, way more than enough to kill someone.

As the oil spews out at an seemingly unstoppable rate, the dollar value of the holocaust becomes crystal clear. The Kuwaiti government estimates that $120 million in oil is lost each day. About $18 billion of Kuwait’s livelihood is now just so much noxious matter floating in the stratosphere above the eastern hemisphere.

“At first it seemed like such a huge waste of money. We felt like we had to get these things out real quick,” said Clayton Berry of Lafayette.

“But after a while, you get kind of numb to it. It doesn’t matter much that you just put out your tenth well, of even your hundredth when over your shoulder there are hundreds more still burning.”