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Where Are Today's Red Adairs?

As I watch the slow progress towards capping BP’s ruptured oil well in the Gulf of Mexico, I am reminded of the near-mythical oil patch hero, “Red” Adair. As gallon after gallon of oil gushes into the Gulf, I wonder where people with his brand of courage and skill have gone.
Paul “Red” Adair was a Texan who was well acquainted with explosive situations, having served in a bomb disposal unit in World War II. After the war, he went to work for one of the pioneers of oil well fire and blowout control.
In the late 1950s, Adair formed his own company to fight oil well fires and well blowouts. He broke new ground with his “wild well control” techniques and firefighting equipment.
In 1962, Adair and his company extinguished a blaze nicknamed “the Devil’s Cigarette Lighter” at a gas field in the Sahara. It has been described as a 450 foot pillar of fire and apparently it was visible to astronauts orbiting the earth. It was nothing, however, that a tough-as-nails Texan and 500 tons of explosives couldn’t handle.
Other major oil well explosions capped by Adair included a 1970 blaze off the coast of Louisiana, a 1977 oil rig blowout in the North Sea, and the Piper Alpha platform disaster in 1988. He and his company are said to have fought over 2,000 land and offshore oil well emergencies in the course of his career.
Adair was quoted talking about his work extinguishing blazing oil wells. “A lot of guys would get up so far to the wellhead and they just couldn’t take the heat and noise. It didn’t bother me. In fact, I kind of liked it that way. Just me and the well…. So I’d keep walking, not knowing exactly what was happening at the wellhead or on the floor of the drilling rig, ‘cause you never know until you’re there and I’d say, ‘I will defeat it, whatever it is. I will win.’ But that’s a lonely walk, boy, you better believe it.”
If you figure that the only actor who could ever do justice to a real-life champion like this was John Wayne, you’re correct. Wayne celebrated Adair’s Sahara exploits in the 1968 film, “Hellfighters”.
The fame of Red Adair and his team reached its peak after the 1991 gulf war with Iraq. As Saddam Hussein’s troops retreated from their occupation of Kuwait, they ignited 117 Kuwaiti oil wells along the way.
Estimates of how long it would take to get the Kuwaiti inferno under control ranged from 3 to 5 years. Adair and his team managed the feat in a mere 9 months. One presidential tribute to Adair stated, “In an age said to be without heroes, you are an authentic hero”.
Have any Red Adairs made their presence known in the last month in the context of the current Gulf of Mexico disaster? Surely not mere humans like BP C.E.O. Tony Hayward and U.S. President Barack Obama. 
Hayward made an already disastrous public relations situation even worse for BP when he whined, “I’d like my life back”. Life sure is tough at the top.
President Obama has struggled to overcome the reaction to his unaffected demeanour in the face of the disaster. Predictably, his attempt to demonstrate he’s got some fight in him, claiming that he’s trying to determine “whose ass to kick”, fell flat.
Red Adair wouldn’t have talked about kicking some ass. He would have just done it.
Paul “Red” Adair died in 2004 at the age of 83. He was a man who was larger than life and who became so by dedicating himself to his career.
Adair was once quoted on the topic of retirement. “Retire? I don’t know what that word means. 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.”
Robert Smithson is a lawyer in Kelowna practicing exclusively in the area of labour and employment law. For more information about his practice, or to view past “Legal Ease” columns, log onto