They were up before the sun, these Texas cowboys.
Chawin' tobacco. Drawling out a line of talk so foul that many weaker hearts would pack up and head on out of here.But, no matter. Weaker hearts don't last here in the hellish fields of al-Ahmadi. The soot of hundreds of oil-well fires coats your lungs. The fine spray of oil forever blackens your clothes. And the raw heat from those brilliant jets of fire lick at your face, baking into cracks that soon are filled by the hot blasts of desert sand.
These Texas cowboys, the Boots and Coots gang, rolled into town last month packing the biggest gun in the Middle East. A 22-foot-long barrel that's 30 inches wide. They came to tame those throbbing jets of fire that were darkening skies as far away as India and dropping acid rain on Kuwait City until puddles of black formed in the streets.
They loaded this gun with nitrogen. Liquid nitrogen. So cold, says Vic, that if you stick your hand in it, you can pull your fingers off one by one. Vic Anderson should know. He's one of the hands who helps the Boots and Coots boys load their gun.
So, the sheiks of Kuwait - seeing their black gold going up in smoke - gave our boys a call.
Meet the gang. First off, there's Coots, Coots Matthews. The second half of Boots and Coots, one of the premier oil well fire fighting operations in the world and one of four companies now battling the blazes here. Coots broke in as a novice hand on the Texas oil fields in 1944. He started fighting well fires, Lord, it must have been 35 years ago.
At his right hand is Ace Barnes out of Odessa, Texas. He's been a Boots and Coots boy since the gang first formed 14 years ago. Left cheek and under the eye is all scar tissue from burns. It's the price you pay for a life fighting fires in the fields.
Then there's Mike Petrus out of Denison, Texas. Left his four young sons to come here and wade among the scorching columns of fire and scalding pools of oil. "It's kind of like driving a racing car," he says. "It's exciting. You get to travel the world. And the money's good."
Throw in Glenn Harper and James Tippen, and you've got the gang, all duded up in their trademark white overalls and white hard hats.
They were up before the sun, these Texas Cowboys. But the sun didn't even show 'til nearly noon. Another smoke-blackened day in Kuwait, a day so like night that cars have to drive with headlights, even high beams.
It was a day so dark that even experienced hands around the fields of al-Ahmadi could get lost, frighteningly lost, on those muddy dirt roads that snake through a maze of unexploded cluster bombs and burned-out hulks of Iraqi tanks.
Matthews found the site all right. It would be the largest fire he'd ever tried to beat with liquid nitrogen. And he wasn't happy about those northerly gusts that pushed the fire over at an angle about a 100 yards away.
"We've put some smaller ones out before," he said. "We're not sure we can get this (expletive) out. We need all the help we can get and the (expletive) wind won't be helping at all."
Donning a waterproof jumpsuit, Petrus walked out to the yard-high well head to gauge the difficulty of plugging the gusher. Below his heavy boots, the earth was still steaming. The ground was still so hot that the pools of oil were bubbling. And the puddles of water were boiling, splashing three inches into the air.
"It ain't as hot as it was before," he said with a grin that revealed a row of teeth standing out against his oil-blackened face.
He quickly beat a retreat.
The scheme was simple: lower the foot-long Stinger (a tube attached to the end of a boom and mounted on caterpillar treads - into the gusher and pump in white barrite-based mud. Since the mud was heavier than the upward force of the gusher, the oil would be squeezed back down the well and into the earth.
The Stinger slowly closed in on the gusher. The boys guided the stinger, tugging on cables bound to the boom. A stab at the well. A miss. A second try. Success.
The geyser quickly began changing hues from rusty black to grayish black to white. Suddenly, the whoosh was stilled. And the air above the well - for the first time since the Iraqis blew their way out of Ahmadi - was clear.