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Edward ‘Coots’ Matthews; oilfield firefighter put out burning wells in Kuwait

From left, Mr. Matthews, Red Adair, John Wayne, and Boots Hansen on the set of “Hellfighters.’’ In 1962, the firefighters put out one of the most famous oil well fires in history, in Algeria. From left, Mr. Matthews, Red Adair, John Wayne, and Boots Hansen on the set of “Hellfighters.’’ In 1962, the firefighters put out one of the most famous oil well fires in history, in Algeria. (Boots &Amp; Coots International Well Control)
By Douglas Martin
New York Times / April 9, 2010

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NEW YORK — A joke has it that St. Peter was showing a Texan around heaven, with the Texan insisting that everything he saw was better in Texas. St. Peter tired of the routine and pointed to the fire of hell. “Do you have anything like that in Texas?’’ he asked. The Texan said no, then added, “But there are a couple of good old boys in Houston who can put it out for you.’’

Those good old boys would have been Boots Hansen and Coots Matthews, who worked with the celebrated oilfield firefighter Red Adair, then started their own company, Boots & Coots, to become legends in the business of fighting oil well fires. All three were technical advisers and inspirations for characters in the 1968 movie “Hellfighters.’’ John Wayne portrayed Adair.

Mr. 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.

Mr. Matthews died March 31 at the home in Humble, Texas, where he had lived for 48 years, said his daughter, Sharon Scott. He was 86. He had respiratory problems, she said, that might have been related to his breathing carcinogens for 54 years and his penchant for good cigars.

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 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.

Mr. Matthews’s daughter said her father had never denied fear.

“You respect the things you fear,’’ he would say, “and that respect can save your life.’’

But fear was not something Coots Matthews often displayed. His daughter characterized him as a “barroom brawler’’ and “hell on wheels,’’ who “too often let his fists do the talking.’’

It might have owed something to this cantankerous nature that Adair fired him and Hansen seven or eight times, before their final dismissal in 1978. For years, the two sent Adair, who died in 2004, a thank you note each Dec. 6, the anniversary of their firing.

The gratitude was for the chance to start their own business. They both remained good friends with Adair.

Edward Owen Matthews was born in his grandparents’ home in Porter, Texas. His grandmother liked to tickle him and say, “Cootsie, cootsie, baby,’’ and the family adopted the nickname. Young Edward shortened it to Coots before the original caught on with his friends.

Mr. Matthews had three paper routes by the time he was 7, and spent his earnings on a $23 bicycle, his daughter said. He then used the bike to sell merchandise including ice cream and the newspaper Grit.

In 1942, he joined the US Army Air Forces and became a tail gunner on a B-17 Flying Fortress. His plane was shot down on his first mission, but he went on to fly many more.

After the war, Mr. Matthews opened a beer joint in Houston called Cabin in the Pines. It was fun, but not profitable, so he took a job working in oil field services for Halliburton, an industry giant. After 10 years, he was fired for crashing seven company cars.

Mr. Matthews’s sister lived next door to Adair. He and Hansen were working in Tulsa at the time for Myron Kinley, who had come up with the idea of using explosives to extinguish oilfield fires. This led to Mr. Matthews being hired by Kinley. In 1959, Adair and Mr. Matthews left Kinley to start their own company, with Adair as president and Mr. Matthews as vice president. Hansen joined later.

Mr. Matthews and Hansen later stuck to Adair’s tradition of hiring mainly oil-patch roughnecks and roustabouts. No engineers, thank you.

“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.’’

The greatest triumph of oilfield firefighters came in 1991, after retreating Iraqi troops set fire to 700 of Kuwait’s 1,000 oil wells. Coots & Boots, Adair’s firm, and two other companies were on the job, with experts saying it would take four or five years to put out the 3,000-degree fires. The firefighters finished in nine months.

Mr. Matthews was married four times to two women. “I’ll let you figure it out,’’ his daughter said with a laugh. In addition to his daughter, he leaves his sister, Dorothy Candlier; four grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.

Perhaps his most harrowing experience was when a piece of a crane fell on his leg, pinning him, while a poisonous gas well was spewing, his daughter recalled. Adair grabbed an ax to whack off Mr. Matthews’s leg. At the last moment, though, Mr. Matthews summoned his strength and jerked his leg free.

He later asked Adair if he would really have done it. Adair replied, “A one-legged Coots is better than no Coots at all.’’