Adair, Paul Neal (“Red”)

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Adair, Paul Neal (“Red”)

(b. 18 June 1915 in Houston, Texas; d. 7 August 2004 in Houston, Texas), firefighter who pioneered techniques and equipment used to control wild oil- and gas-well fires and blowouts.

Adair was the son of Charles Adair, a blacksmith. In 1929 Charles Adair lost his blacksmith shop, and Red dropped out of high school to work as a delivery boy for a number of local drugstores. In 1932 he found a steady job with the Southern Pacific railroad. He also boxed in local fights to supplement his income, going undefeated. By 1936 his father had returned to work, and Adair could keep all his salary. Adair married Kemmie Lou Wheeler on 3 December 1939, and they had two children.

In 1940 Adair went to work for Otis Pressure Control, Inc. (which became Otis Engineering), working as a contract laborer. In December in Smackover, Arkansas, Adair experienced his first well blowout. While everyone else ran for safety, Adair stayed at the well, saw the problem, and fixed it. His boss nearly fired him over the incident, saying if Adair wanted to work on wild wells he should go to work for Myron Kinley, the world’s expert on blowout control. Adair and Kinley met a short time later in the spring of 1941 at a well fire in Alice, Texas, and Kinley took an instant liking to Adair.

In 1943 Adair enlisted in the army, serving with the 139th Bomb Disposal Unit. He finished his military service in Japan in the spring of 1946. Kinley hired Adair full time, and for thirteen years they worked together inventing and perfecting techniques for controlling blowouts. Throughout his career, Adair suffered numerous broken bones, burns, temporary blindness, and hearing loss. On 1 January 1953 Adair suffered his first serious injury when a crane fell and crushed his hips and pelvis. Doctors initially said he would never walk again, but he was back on the job in four months. When Adair was not putting out fires, he raced automobiles at Arrowhead Speedway or drag raced on the streets of Houston, losing only to his wife. Later, Adair switched from cars to speedboats, buying his first racing boat in 1965.

In June 1959 Adair formed Red Adair Oil Well Fires and Blowouts Control Co., based in Houston. When Kinley closed his business a few months later, Adair had a world monopoly, replacing Kinley as the world’s expert at wild well control. Adair and his employees were easily identifiable as everyone and everything—personnel, cars, boats, machinery—was outfitted in red to help locate people and equipment during an emergency.

Adair gained international acclaim in May 1962 when he extinguished a fire in Algeria known as the Devil’s Cigarette Lighter. The fire had started on 15 November 1961 and was so intense that the astronaut John Glenn could see it from space. Experts predicted the fire would last one hundred years, but Adair put it out in six months. Adair earned a new nickname, Hellfighter, which was also the name of a 1968 movie, starring John Wayne, based on Adair’s exploits. Adair called it the best honor in the world to have Wayne portray him in a movie.

Adair continued to make international news during the 1970s. In 1977 he worked on a blowout on the EKO-FISK Bravo platform off the coast of Norway that left a 200-square-mile oil slick. Congress called Adair to testify during hearings on how these environmental disasters could be prevented. He started his testimony saying he was just a “country boy from Texas” but continued by saying that laws and regulations would not stop blowouts because they resulted from human error. On 3 June 1979 a well on the IXTOC I rig, owned by Petroleos Mexicanos (PEMEX), blew and began dumping 80,000 gallons of oil a day into the Gulf of Mexico. Adair’s job involved controlling more than a wild well because PEMEX ordered him to try methods suggested by other experts, none of which worked. Press reports were hard on Adair, wondering if he had met his match. He got the well under control in the spring of 1980, when he was able to work unimpeded by PEMEX, but the bad press damaged Adair’s reputation.

Following the IXTOC disaster, work slowed for Adair, and friends and family encouraged him to retire. He suffered a heart attack in 1986, the same year the bottom fell out of the petroleum industry. During slow times he would stomp around his office, yelling at employees. He was not angry with anyone, but he lived for the job and could not tolerate idleness. In July 1988 an explosion rocked the Piper Alpha oil platform off the coast of Scotland. Adair and his crew redeemed their international standing, as the world watched Adair battle both the fires and the raging North Atlantic seas.

In 1991, in Kuwait, Adair fought his last major oil fire. Iraqi forces, during the first Gulf War, had sabotaged approximately 800 oil wells as they withdrew from Kuwait, leaving 600 on fire. Adair’s company was one of the first to respond to the effort that eventually included companies from sixteen countries. Adair handled the logistics of the operation, which proved difficult because of purchasing issues with the Kuwaiti government. It took a personal appeal by Adair to President George H. W. Bush to break the logjam and get the necessary supplies and equipment.

Adair finally retired in 1994 after more than fifty years in the wild well business and sold his company to Global Industries, Ltd. In the course of his career he put out over three thousand oil and gas fires. He believed his company’s greatest success was that no employee had ever been killed. Adair died of natural causes on 7 August 2004 in Houston. He was buried in the Forest Park Lawn-dale cemetery in Houston.

Throughout his life Adair always tried to deflect talk of his bravery. He said he was not in the business for the glamour but because it was work he knew and did well. What many people called luck, Adair called careful planning and observation. He always wanted to stay a step ahead of everybody and every situation, a drive exhibited by his controlling nature. Adair worked and played hard, usually at breakneck speed, and expected those around him to keep up.

Adair’s story is ably told in Philip Singerman’s An American Hero: The Red Adair Story: An Authorized Biography (1990), which includes numerous oral history selections from Adair and his family and friends. Additional information can be found in Kim Willenson and Nicholas C. Proffitt, “Red, Boots, Coots and Toots,” Newsweek, 9 May 1977, p. 50. Obituaries are in the New York Times (10 Aug. 2004) and Houston Chronicle (11 Aug. 2004).

Michael C. Miller