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Red Adair, 89; his guile, grit beat back towers of flames

HOUSTON -- Oil field firefighter Paul N. ''Red" Adair, who was instrumental in capping Kuwaiti oil wells set ablaze by Iraq and was immortalized by John Wayne in a movie based on his life, died Saturday of natural causes at a Houston hospital. He was 89.

Using explosives, water cannons, bulldozers, drilling mud, and concrete, Mr. Adair revolutionized the science of snuffing and controlling wells spewing high-pressure jets of oil and gas.

''It scares you: all the noise, the rattling, the shaking," Mr. 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."

Mr. Adair took pride that none of his employees ever suffered a serious injury fighting hundreds of dangerous well fires around the world. His daring and his reputation for having never met a blowout he couldn't cap earned him the nickname ''Hellfighter." That 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," Mr. Adair said.

He founded Red Adair Co. Inc. in 1959 and is credited with battling more than 2,000 land and offshore oil well fires, including the hundreds of wells set afire when the Iraqi army retreated from Kuwait during the Persian Gulf War in 1991.

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

''Retire? I don't know what that word means," he told reporters. ''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."

Mr. Adair, who finally did retire in 1994 and sold his company, was instrumental in expediting the shipment of crucial equipment to Kuwait by testifying before the Gulf Pollution Task Force and meeting with then-President George H. W. Bush about the logistics of the firefighting operation.

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

However, he said, government red tape hindered the process.

''It's ridiculous. I've been doing this for 50 years and I've never been in a situation like this before in my life where it goes through so many changes of command to get the equipment we need," Mr. Adair said.

His death-defying feats included battling the July 1988 explosion of the Piper Alpha platform, which killed 167 men in the stormy North Sea, 120 miles off Scotland.

Mr. 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," Mr. 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."

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