Though it was late winter, the desert temperatures had already climbed into the 90’s as elite teams approached the battle front. But this battle was to be waged against the ovens of hell itself and the warriors were firefighters.
By late February of 1991, the Iraqi military, retreating in defeat from Kuwait after coalition forces punished their defenses, had blown up so many oil wells that the streaks of dark smoke could be easily seen from space, spanning hundreds of miles across the Arabian sky. The official count was 749 wells damaged with 650 of those on fire.
An Act of Evil
The Iraqi’s destroyed these wells for a few reasons. One was to cover their embarrassing retreat… but the other reasons were truly sinister. Their invasion of Kuwait was about oil. The dispute between Kuwait and Iraq over their shared production of the Rumalia oilfield served as the excuse for the invasion. Destroying these wells was the last slap in the face to the Kuwaiti’s. But it was also an act of defiance by Saddam Hussein in telling the world, that though he was defeated, the entire globe would pay for it.
The environmental implications were immense. Estimates were that over 600 million barrels of oil had been lost before it was over – equivalent to three full months of the earths total consumption at that time. At current rates, that’s the total output of the Eagle Ford shale play… for over 400 days.
A burning wellhead can only be compared to fiction – that of a dragon’s wrath, uninterrupted. With 650 dragons screaming into the desert abyss, the task of slaying them was thought to be a multi-year task.
It Took Another Army
But the combined efforts of nearly 10,000 workers from 34 countries in utilizing 125,000 tons of heavy equipment would prove the estimates wrong. Much of the fire fight was done in darkness, even during the peak of a noon day sun as the thick smoke blotted out most sunlight. And all of it was fought in the face of heat so intense it melted metal.
Several methods were attempted – some successful, some not. More conventional methods of high pressure water systems and detonating explosives over a raging well (creating a shockwave that should put the fire out) worked most of the time. But newer methods of using liquid nitrogen, dry chemicals, and in a few cases jet engines mounted on captured Iraqi tanks to blow the fires out with the introduction of water in the jet stream proved effective.
The real problem for workers was not the fires, but what to do with a shredded well head that was still rocketing oil from the earth. The only option was “man on task”. Men had to work close to the source to remove shredded metal to create a usable insert for dropping a valve cap on the well from a specialized crane called an Athey Wagon. Wrenching well heads closed had to be done without the use of fuel-based cutting tools or anything that could cause a spark.
It truly was as if the gates of hell had opened… and in some unfortunate instances, workers were caught within them. Five men were incinerated when their truck wandered into a burning moat of oil after losing their way in the smoke. Another man died after stepping on a land mine. Seven workers suffered serious burn injuries. But in all, the casualties were relatively low considering the task. By November 1991, the fires were out but the environmental damage was still being assessed.