Oil Well Firefighter Adair Dies

When an oil well fire raged in the Sahara Desert (search) in 1962, the flames grew so high that astronaut John Glenn (search) said he saw it from space as he orbited Earth.

The fire became known as the "Devil's Cigarette Lighter" and burned for six months. Extinguishing it took daring and skill and became one of Paul N. "Red" Adair's most memorable achievements.

Adair, who earned the nickname "Hellfighter" for having never met an oil well fire he couldn't cap and whose story inspired John Wayne (search) to portray his life on screen, died Saturday at age 89. He died of natural causes at a Houston hospital, his daughter, Robyn Adair, told The Associated Press early Sulled 167 men in the stormy North Sea, 120 miles off the coast of Scotland.

"It scares you: all the noise, the rattling, the shaking," Adair once said, describing a blowout. "But the look on everybody's face when you're finished and packing, it's the best smile in the world; and there's nobody hurt, and the well's under control."

Former President George H.W. Bush called him a true hero.

"So many times he went into harm's way to save others," he said. "I particularly remember his service to mankind in Kuwait when the oilfields, set ablaze, first devastated the Persian Gulf. Red Adair was a friend, a wonderful human being and a patriot. He will be sorely missed."

Adair's teams were among the first of 27 teams from 16 countries that spent eight months capping 732 Kuwaiti wells after the Persian Gulf War in 1991. His expertise helped greatly shorten an operation that had been expected to last three to five years, saving millions of barrels of oil and preventing an intercontinental air pollution disaster.

"He knew his talents for putting out oil-well fires was a God-given gift and he was thankful for that," Robyn Adair said in Sunday's edition of the Houston Chronicle. "He was very energetic and quick on his feet."

Adair started the Red Adair Co. Inc. in 1959 and revolutionized the science of snuffing and controlling wells spewing high-pressure jets of oil and gas, using explosives, water cannons, bulldozers, drilling mud and concrete. He was the first to cap an underwater well and the first to cap a floating vessel. He led the industry in developing modern equipment and firefighting techniques, including the semi-submersible firefighting vessel.

Adair's prowess inspired the title of the 1968 John Wayne movie based on his life, "The Hellfighters."

"That's one of the best honors in the world: To have The Duke play you in a movie," Adair said.

He proudly spent his 76th birthday in Kuwait clad in his trademark red overalls, swinging valves into place atop out-of-control wells.

"Retire? I don't know what that word means," he told reporters at the time. "As long as a man is able to work and he's productive out there and he feels good — keep at it. I've got too many of my friends that retired and went home and got on a rocking chair, and about a year and a half later, I'm always going to the cemetery."

Adair finally retired in 1994.

Adair, who never showed fear in life, joked in 1991 that the hereafter would be no different.

"I've done made a deal with the devil," Adair said. "He said he's going to give me an air-conditioned place when I go down there, if I go there, so I won't put all the fires out."