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Algeria, 1962

Try to overlook the watermarks on some of these images the best you can, with my apologies. They were taken of the great Algerian gas fire called the Devils Cigarette Lighter in 1962 by famous French photographer, Maurice Jarnoux (1907-1969). Getty Images now owns the copyright. I tried to buy a JPEG of one of these images and the best they would agree to is renting it to me, for 3 years, for $800.

I was later told by a photographer friend of mine that Jarnoux's images of the Devils Cigarette Lighter in Algeria in 1961-62, 15 total, would sell for something like $200,000 each in today's market. If I photo-shopped the watermark out of the image, or cropped it, to post here on Oily Stuff, Getty would end up owning me. Having had a number of my photographs published without my permission, I understand. There are few photographs of this great blowout other than those taken by Jarnoux and owned by Getty, or personal photos taken by Red, Boots or Coots.

Adair & Maurice Jarnoux, 1962. Note the Red Adair Company sticker on his North African "company car."

Gassi Touli # 2, Algeria, 1962. This may be a Jarnoux image but it never had a Getty watermark on it when I got it in 1995. Left to right, Red, Coots and Boots walking into the breach. Red is quoted as saying this well was so big it created its own weather and above the dozer in this particular photograph you can see heat & wind vortexes that Red said would, "suck the hard hat off your head."

This most likely is a Jarnoux image given its quality but Coots slipped me this in 1995 along with the photo above this one. That is Coots watching Red throw his hardhat down, probably showing off a little for whomever took the photo. If these are Getty images, it ain't my fault. This article is about history and nobody is making any money, trust me.

I am pretty certain this is Boot's snapshot taken in 1962 as Red, Boots, Coots and Charlie Tolar were starting to pick away at drilling rig debris. The water monitors in the background are going wide open and the dozer has been covered with tin, including a expanded metal walkway on the front dozer blade for backing the dozer operator into the fire to drop the hook, etc.

The Jarnoux image above is of Red, Boots and Coots loading the shot drum that blew the fire out, spring, 1962. Red is holding a plastic bag of caps, Coots is looking into the drum helping Red count and that is Boots behind Coots unwrapping more glycerin. They were meticulously loading 750 pounds of glycerin in this fabricated drum, mounted on the back of the Athey wagon. Inside the big drum is a smaller drum and chemical fire retarder was packed between the two drums for some reason only Adair knew. Red could "shape" these explosive charges by packing the shot drums in a certain way, as he is reported to have done in Algeria. When it was denoted from behind a dozer blade, 200 yards away, Coots said the entire dozer "jumped off the ground six inches." Well head debris flew hundreds of yards away but the 5 month old fire was finally out.

Loaded and ready to go. The drum will now be wrapped with layers of asbestos cloth before backed in to the base of the fire. Red Adair; relief well in progress in the distant background.

The story of this blowout in Gassi Touli, Algeria, is a helluva a story and if you do not know of it I recommend watching a full length feature, narrated by Red himself, that is 34 minutes long and can be found any number of places on the internet, including YouTube.

Here is a 3:00 clip of that old film we used to help produce a documentary about the history of oil well firefighting and blowout control for the History Channel in 1992. Ignore me completely, please (I could not cut it out of the video or I would have) and focus instead on pre-capping scenes that show the gas flow belling out of the casing restricted only by the OD of the casing. Boots said the vacuum was so strong standing under this blowing well was shivering cold.

Boots and Coots were the first on the scene in November of 1961; Red was back in Texas on another job. The well was blowing hard into the pits and around the drill pipe, several hundred feet above the crown. Coots had followed Boots up into the derrick to chain back a chiksan and hose before trying to pump the well dead with mud.

"Something didn't feel right," Coots said, and they climbed down the derrick legs and off the floor, walked a hundred yards or so out in the sand and the well ignited. Had they stayed in the derrick another 3 minutes the ignition would have killed them both. What Coots described as not "feeling right" was that he was getting shocked every time he touched metal in the derrick and that the hair on his arms were standing straight up all the time. Turned out what he was feeling was static electricity from a dry desert wind and that is what likely ignited the well. When it turned lose it blew all the drill pipe out the well and sent it clanging thru the derrick. The derrick fell in less than an hour.

The big Algerian fire required three months of water preparation, equipment fabrication and transport before Red, Boots, Coots and Charlie could even start working on the well itself. Water wells had to be drilled and a relief well initiated. In the mean time there were other jobs going on around the world they had to be tended to and numerous trips were made to Algeria during the period.

I've told several stories about Coots Matthews here on Oily Stuff. Coots was my hero and one of the greatest honors in my life to work with him, and for him. Here's another Coots story about the Devils Cigarette Lighter in 1961-62 he used to tell all the time:

In early 1962 Red, Boots and Coots left Houston together to fly to North Africa to finalize the kill and capping. Charlie Tolar was already there making water preparations, etc. The three of them flew to Paris via Pan American and were sitting in the first class lounge waiting to make their next connection when Joy Hamilton, Red's secretary in Houston, paged him to say a big job came up in Mexico. Red thought it over and decided to send Coots back to handle the job in Mexico; he could catch up with them in Algeria later. Within an hour Coots was another Pan American flight back to New York.

There he had a two hour layover before going on to Mexico City. Sitting in the first class lounge having his 9th Crown and water of the day, Joy paged Coots to say the job in Mexico had bridged, they didn't need him afterall, she had talked to Red and Red said get another flight and come to Algeria ASAP.

Within an hour Coots was settling into his first class seat headed for Paris, again, when a stewardess came by to fluff his pillow and ask him what he wanted to drink before takeoff.

She coyly asked him, "sir, will this be your first trans-Atlantic flight?"

Coots grinned and said, "darlin,' if we get across this time it will be my 3rd one today."


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