Mixing liquid nitrogen with a stream of water and a dose of Texas grit and ingenuity, American firefighters have finally extinguished a Kuwaiti oil well blaze.
"This is the first one," Larry Flak, a coordinator of the firefighting efforts for the Kuwait Oil Co., said Monday. "We could do three or four a day once we get up to speed. We could set up an assembly line."As he spoke, hundreds of oil well fires raged on.
The fire at well MG59 in patch No. 9 was initially extinguished Sunday. But it was promptly relighted to prevent the oil from gushing overnight while crews made a form-fitted cap to cover the wellhead.
Early Monday, the fire was again extinguished by a relatively new process. Liquid nitrogen was pumped in to make the oil non-coimbustible, and a steady flow of water was used to cool the wellhead and prevent reignition.
Crews then poured mud and concrete down the hole and began capping.
"It ain't that big a deal. It was a small one," shrugged Boots Hansen, his white uniform streaked with black oil, his thinning hair blowing in the wind. "Now, we'll just go after another one."
Hansen, 64, is co-founder of Boots & Coots, one of three Houston-based firms with the fire-breathing task of putting out several hundred oil well infernos in the newly liberated emirate.
Iraqi troops torched and blew up oil wells as a final act of terrorism before fleeing the emirate in the face of a U.S.-led coalition ground assault in February.
Kuwaiti officials estimate the number of burning wells from between 350 to 500. They say 800 of the nation's 1,000 wells were damaged and that upward of $100 million worth of oil a day is gushing out, much of it going up in flames and spewing toxic fumes.
The firefighting crews began arrriving a month ago, shortly after liberation, but they have been confronted with numerous delays in getting needed equipment and water. They also had to wait for mines to be removed.
On March 16, U.S. Army Sgt. Forrest Irvin, while surveying the damaged fields, put out the first oil well fire when he slowly and carefully turned a control wheel with his bare hands. He also got covered with oil.
Two weeks ago, Wild Well Control scored a public relations coup by capping the first non-burning well in Kuwait's ravaged fields. Since then, about two dozen other non-burning wells have been sealed shut.