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Into The Breach

This is a reprint from an article for the 2004 Annual National Association of Division Order Analysts Quarterly Bulletin...

I drove all night, sometimes 90 MPH on flat, empty, West Texas highways. Dawn was breaking quickly now. The map said I was still 20 miles from the turn-off but already I could see black, acrid smoke from the well billowing high in the sky.

I stopped at a little gas station to get one last cup of coffee and the lady behind the cash register sees my company car. “It’s a big one,” she says, then laughs a little when she asks if I need directions. She does not charge me for the coffee and the look on her face is something between wonder and pity. There are spectators lined up on the highway already, people sitting on hoods of big pickups, watching. Oil well fires in Texas are big entertainment.

A successful oil and natural gas producer in another life and 46 years old this was my first, big fire working for Boots and Coots, Inc., Oil Well Firefighters and Blowout Specialists. I wiggled my way into this job with 35 years of experience in the oil field and because my best friend, a senior firefighter with the company, knew how much I wanted it. I first met Red Adair when I was eleven years old when a drilling rig my father owned literally sank into a crater caused by a gas well blowout, never to be seen again. I worked with Red and and Coots Matthews on three different occasions as a young roughneck; the asked and I always volunteered. Adair and Boots and Coots were like God's where I hailed.

But after three, fourteen hour days I am dog tired and have blisters on my feet the size of big oysters from walking in scalding crude oil. The notoriety, the media attention, the pretty cowgirls every night wanting to buy me drinks, all that is getting to be a bunch of bullshit and I am wanting to get home.

The tall, massive drilling rig that once stood over this well was now melted into a big pile of scrap iron. The fire is all spread out, blowing in different directions; it is a big mess. We have been picking away at what is left of the rig, dragging pieces of it out, sometimes in big chunks, mostly in little pieces, trying to get the fire going straight up, like a torch, before we can cap it. We are using huge, 4000 gallon per minute water pumps to keep us cool, keep our equipment from burning up. We spray water toward the fire from three- sided, galvanized covered monitor stands, pushing them in very close, using the tin as a shield occasionally to keep from burning up ourselves. Wearing long underwear and cotton coveralls we stay drenched all day; water and flimsy clothing is all there is between flesh and a fire that often has a core temperature of 3000 degrees. In close we take short peeks at the work to be done from underneath tin hard hats. Plastic hard hats would melt in seconds.

Today the wind is fickle and changing directions. We have been playing musical monitor stands since nine this morning trying to stay up wind of the fire. It is exhausting work dragging the skid mounted sheds around with D-8 bulldozers and re-laying 6 inch water lines each time the wind shifts. The mud is knee-deep everywhere you walk and the heat from the fire works on you early and does not let up. It messes with your head.

We’ve just moved two of the three monitors again, for the fourth time today; my stand is in close, maybe 60 feet from the wellhead. It is a hot son of a bitch. The wind shifts again, suddenly, and lays the fire right over the top of me. I open the water nozzle wide and turn it straight up, like a big shower, and hunker down telling myself not to run. I would not make it; there is fire all around me now and the stand completely enveloped. I am stuck.

Crouched in a ball trying not to breathe too much air that is already burning my lungs I see my boots smoldering. Two minutes of this and I am beginning to think I will combust indistinguishably into something my family would not recognize. The wind shifts again; I see daylight out the back of the stand and I retreat in a hurried walk to cooler climates. Firefighters don’t run around a blowing well or fire, period. It is not part of the code. Besides, the crowd out on the highway has grown to concert size now, complete with lawn chairs.

I am on this fire with Boots and Coots, Inc. veterans, Martin Kelly, Joe Carpenter and Danny Strong. This is just another day at the office for these guys; in Kuwait in 1991 Boots and Coots capped over 130 wells in 7 months and these three men were there battling well after well. Martin, the leadoff man, the man in charge, is waiting for me when I get out, smiling.

Even a hundred yards away from the well the pressurized flow ripping thru twisted metal sounds like a jet engine at full throttle and it is impossible to hear each other talk. I give him a wide-eyed, nervous grin and mouth the words, holy fuck.

He puts his arms over my shoulders and hollers in my ear, through two ear plugs, “welcome to oil well firefighting, dude,” then turns and heads back into the breach.


This is a reprint from an article for the 2004 Annual National Association of Division Order Analysts Quarterly Bulletin, a precursor to speaking at their National Convention in Fort Lauderdale where there was 800 people in attendance.

On a scale of one to ten as an oil well firefighter I was about a three and never got to lead off on a job the entire time I was with Boots and Coots. I worked with seven and eights, however, and of course new the tens and called them my friends. A month after this job in West Texas Martin, Joe and Danny were killed on an explosion in in eastern Syria for Shell.

Several months later David, Wayne and I went on a job in South Texas and the well caught fire while we were in pretty close. Ten yards further in and we would have been burned. Several months later some corporate types from Colorado bought the company and I left. Boots and Coots are now both gone and their company is owned by Halliburton.

Over the years I've researched the history of the blowout profession extensively, have lectured on it, written about it and helped produce documentaries about it going all the way back to the early 1900's.

I promised Martin I would.

Mike Shellman


Photo Courtesy Peter Menzel; Gary Sego, Boots and Coots, Inc., Kuwait, 1991.


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