Call them roustabouts, scroungers, pack rats, ne'er-do-wells. But don't doubt their ability.

Joe Bowden and his son, Joe Jr., may lack the style and flash of better-known oil firefighters.But it was they who on Tuesday "killed" the first of Kuwait's hundreds of crippled oil wells, ramming hundreds of barrels of mud down into the spewing well and wrestling a 250-pound valve onto its head.

The crude turned their yellow overalls jet black as they scurried over a sand berm to screw on the valve. Together, they cursed Saddam Hussein.

"He was one son of a gun and that's putting it mildly," Bowden Sr. said. "Never thought I'd been peaking my career in a war zone."

The well, which had been spewing 15,000 barrels a day into the desert, was one of a few dozen the Iraqis damaged before their retreat late last month but failed to set aflame. Six hundred others were torched and still burn.

Other oil firefighting firms, like Red Adair and Boots and Coots, both of Houston, may have the Bowden's Wild Well Control Co. beat in extravagance and reputation.

But the family-run business from outside Houston has quickly made a name for itself among "hellfighters" who've come to Kuwait to perform the first part of cleaning up the biggest mess anyone's ever seen.

Already Bowden, son Joe and the rest of his five man crew have salvaged two cranes and a bulldozer from the waste of the Persian Gulf war - a feat unmatched by his higher-class comrades . . . or competitors.

Bowden's welder, Glenn Laverne, a 44-year-old from Eunice, La., is about finished with an ad hoc platform for two water pumps to be used in the campaign to snuff well blazes.

Elder Joe, 58, has turned a cargo container into an office and filled it with tools picked from the desert.

"We call it K mart's Kuwait branch," he said.

"I call it pack rat city," said Clayton Perry, a 56-year-old oil man from Lafayette, La.

The men are also busy hustling up portable showers from the U.S. Army - obtained in a dubious exchange with U.S. soldiers for some Wild Well Control baseball caps.

"Driving a hunk-of-junk pickup truck, that's our style," said Joe Jr., 32. "If scrounging is what it takes, we'll scrounge."

In the rarefied world of oil firefighting, Bowden's Wild Well Control is still off-Broadway compared to the long-running hits - Red Adair and Boots and Coots.

The 73-year-old Red was featured in a John Wayne movie. Boots Hansen, 65, broke with his former boss in a much-heralded split 13 years ago.

But playing out of their cramped corrugated tin office, old man Bowden and son can still put on a show.

"I roughnecked, drilled, pushed tools all through college; heck I started working when I was 13 years old," the father said. "Now I've been in 42, no, make that 43 countries around the world. Really I'm just a ne'er do well, a roustabout."

Joe Jr. started working with his dad when he was 17. Another son, 24-year-old Sam, did the same and is expected in Kuwait shortly.

The highlight of Joe Jr.'s career so far - a trip to China in 1986 with his father and one other hellfighter to snuff a blowout in the forbidding wasteland of China's great northwest.

"Twenty-one days in a tent, without a bath," Joe Jr. said. "I loved every minute of it. All the people coming to check us out with their eyes bugging out. We were camping with a battalion of Chinese soldiers. The wells had been spewing for 40 days, about 7,000 barrels a day."

Tuesday's well more than doubled that. In the 30 days since Iraqi forces blew up the well, it had spewed 450,000 barrels into the desert sand, wasting $9 million in crude.

First, a team from oil giant Halliburton rammed hundreds of barrels of mud 4,000 feet under the earth to flush out the spewing oil. Then, Bowden, his son and the rest of the team finished the job, plugging the well.

The operation was the first "kill" since firefighters began tackling the job last week. Kills occur when mud, cement or any other heavy liquid is used to plug a spewing well.

Before they fled Kuwait, Iraqi forces torched 600 oil wells.