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Victoria; 1993

This was a little oil well fire not quite in downtown Victoria, Texas, but damn close. It caused quite a stir. There were police and fire trucks and EMS trucks and TV vans everywhere. One afternoon, shortly after the well blew out and was a gettin' it, there were at least 1,000 spectators at this event, standing on the roofs of houses, on pickup toolboxes, lined up and down the streets. If you did not have Boots and Coots stickers on the front door of your vehicle, or flashing red and blue lights, there was no way you were going to even get close to this blowout. Neighborhood dogs stayed very upset about all this for four days.

The fire cooked the little rig, then the well appeared to partially bridge and what was left was a little rolling fire leaking around the Hydrill; the kelly and drill pipe still in the hole. The fire could have been knocked out completely with two water monitors but because it was making oil, and in a damn residential area, with oily water running down the storm sewers, it was left burning. This was James Tuppen's job; he was as good a lead-off hand as you get.

In this photo, above, the rig substructure has been picked up on one end and blocked. Joe Carpenter is cutting the outside beam of the substructure so it can be slid out around the BOP stack and cleared. That thing hanging off the rig floor is a TIW valve and pump in assembly, still attached to a hose. Apparently things got too wild to get it stabbed over the flow before everything went south.

The next step was to cut the kelly at the top of the bell nipple. The well wasn't blowing hard enough to have to cut it with a sand line, or hire out a jet cutter, so Big Joe just walked up the stairs onto the rig floor, laid some tin down above the fire, got on his knees and commenced to cutting all that shit off with a cutting torch. We keep a good flow of water on him but every now and then the wind would quit blowing and he'd completely disappear in the fire, totally engulfed. Took him maybe 10 minutes. He came out as red as a lobster, the heat radiating off him like an oven, the zippers on his coveralls all but melted shut. He was more worried about his torch hoses than himself.

Once this was done the entire substructure was slid out of the way with a D-6 and a winch line. The BOP stack was unbolted and lifted off with a crane and a new capping stack set and bolted up, the well shut in.

I think of Joe now and then. He was a deeply devout Christian and often thought of the rest of us as heathens in need of saving. Having said that the guy always, always had your back. I got wormy around a big fire one time and almost walked into a ditch covered with boiling oil; Joe grabbed me by the nape of my neck and saved me from a blistering. When we got in that evening I got a big ass eating over that, but when Joe spoke it was always a good idea to take your medicine and just say, yes sir.

Less than a month later Joe was burned to death in eastern Syria with two more of my colleagues, and friends, at Boots and Coots.

Joe believed very strongly, and often told all of us, to never leave home without saying someone, to anyone. Even if it was just to run an errand around town. "You never know," he would often say.

I actually helped take him, and Martin Kelly and Danny Strong to the airport in Houston to go on the job in Syria. He smiled and nodded goodbye, naturally, as he went thru the terminal doors to check in.

I never saw him again.


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