Annals of American Hellfighters

With the BP oil spill in the Gulf, we’re all learning quite a bit about how to deal with oil well-related disaster. “Top Kill,” “Junk Shot,” “Top Hat,” and half  a dozen other strategies to seal off the underwater well — all of which sound like a series of movies starring Jason Statham — have all become part of the lingua franca, or at least I wish that they had. In any case, reading about the situation at the site of the erstwhile Deepwater Horizon, I came across this paragraph:

Several veterans of the Kuwait operation are orchestrating the technicians in the Gulf of Mexico. To lead the effort, BP has brought in Mark Mazzella, its top well-control expert, who was mentored by Bobby Joe Cudd, a legendary Oklahoma well firefighter.

Now, where have I heard about legendary well firefighters before? Oh, right, this incredible obituary: “Coots Matthews, Cantankerous Hellfighter, Dies at 86.” A sampling:

Matthews, like his colleagues, was an expert in the perilous art of detonating dynamite in oil well infernos to starve the fire of oxygen, thereby killing it. Real hellfighters insist on the word “kill” over wimpier alternatives like “extinguish.”

… Among thousands of calamities, Mr. Matthews survived the simultaneous blowout of 14 wells in the North Sea; 700 oil well fires in Iraq in 1991; and a broken leg, which made him an inch shorter on the left side. He and Boots, or Asger Hansen, helped Mr. Adair put out one of the most famous oil well fires in history. The blaze, in Algeria in 1962, came to be called the Devil’s Cigarette Lighter.

…  His daughter characterized him as a “barroom brawler” and “hell on wheels,” who “too often let his fists do the talking.”

You should basically read the whole thing.  Ok, one more: Before he set out on his own, Coots was fired from Halliburton for crashing seven company cars. Damn.

Anyway, it turns out that Coots knew Bobby Joe Cudd, because they both worked with Red Adair, another legendary hellfighter, in Kuwait, among other projects. Mazella has a pretty good pedigree, in other words, so hopefully he’ll get this well in the Gulf capped toot sweet.

I’ll leave the last word to Coots:

“An engineer’s not going to put his hands on a fire, but he thinks he’s so much smarter than us,” Mr. Matthews said in an interview with The Washington Post in 1991. “And if they ever get a computer to cap a goddang oil well, I guess I’ll be out of business. But I ain’t shakin’ in my boots over it.”

Pic via.


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