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The fire was out of control . . . the heat so intense the ground was hot and dry. On the other side of the ridge, it was bitterly cold. Snow a foot deep covered that slope.
Through the car windshield, the young man could see his friend’s body. It was face down, draped over the lip of the huge circular ridge surrounding the raging gas well fire. Brilliant light from the flames outlined his colleague’s back and buttocks. His feet and legs were thrust deeply into the snow.
Orville’s upper body faced the screaming inferno. He was lying on his chest, arms bent, his elbows propped up on brittle dead grass. The hood of his parka and jacket were peeled back down past his shoulders. The buttons of his shirt were opened almost to the waist.
The young man felt guilty. Orville had urged him to sit in the car. He’d been there a while. It was the only place to get warm in this vast expanse of treeless rolling prairie.
Suddenly, he saw his colleague trying desperately to block the searing heat bombarding his upper body and head. Orville raised his parka as a shield. He forced himself to keep steady, focusing his Hasselblad press camera. The blazing natural gas well he was trying to photograph was a mass of burned and twisted metal lying at the bottom of a bowl-shaped hollow in the prairie landscape. Fingers of red flames thrust their way through the crumbled remains of the drilling rig and then shot skyward over 300 feet.
Later, they were told the top half of Orville’s body had been exposed to temperatures exceeding 150 degrees Fahrenheit. Yet, he was more than 200 yards from the burning wellhead. His legs and feet were in temperatures hovering between zero and 10 degrees Fahrenheit. Orville’s response was, taken on average he should have been fairly comfortable.
The wild natural gas well resembled a massive screaming blowtorch. It had exploded out of control a day earlier. Orville and the young reporter were assigned to cover the gas well fire by the daily newspaper where both worked.
Night was fast approaching as Orville finished snapping enough photographs for their first story. The reporter had gathered as many details as he would get that day from a frantic and distraught gas well drilling rig supervisor. The two journalists needed to ‘file’ this developing news story right away. They headed off on the three-hour drive back to the city and the newspaper.
In the newsroom, the pair worked late . . . well into the early morning. Orville prepared his work for a special photo layout for the next day’s paper. The reporter wrote a news story to accompany Orville’s spectacular photos. In the morning, an editor would send both to the national news service for transmission to other media across the country and elsewhere.
Their work done, the two hopped into the staff car and headed back out to the burning gas well, taking turns sleeping en route.
For the next few days, the pattern was the same. During the day, they would gather photos and information on the latest developments, and then head back to the newspaper where they prepared updated stories and photo essays, working late into the night.
Orville insisted on leaving the office for the trip back in the wee hours of each morning without going home for a few hours sleep. He feared a senior editor might arrive for work unexpectedly early and insist that a younger photographer handle the rest of the photo assignment. Orville wanted none of that. He took his job seriously as photo editor but also relished getting out into the country, camera in hand.
This time, that eagerness almost cost him his life.
He and the young reporter had become friends well before this assignment. The young man was green – he had just a few years of experience. But he’d shown an interest in the photo side of journalism and that grabbed Orville’s attention. He began to mentor the young man. Then the reporter’s job frequently took him out into the country. He often needed a photographer. Orville assigned himself to go on as many of these out of town trips as he could.
The gas well fire was large and stubborn. It raged out of control for days. Up close, the roar of the blazing natural gas was so loud firefighters had to communicate with hand signals. It took crews three days just to remove the melted wreckage of the drilling rig and the original wellhead. Another day was needed to prepare for trying to cap the well, an extremely dangerous job.
The company that owned the well had called in Red Adair, a legendary wild well fighter, to bring the fire under control. As luck would have it, Adair’s team had just finished putting out an oil well fire only a few hundred miles away. Many years later, Adair’s techniques would be used to extinguish hundreds of oil well fires started by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s army while being chased from the Kuwait.
One of Adair’s crew explained that to shield their workers from the wellhead heat they’d work behind sheets of corrugated metal mounted on tracked bulldozers. He estimated temperatures were close to 1,300 degrees F at the wellhead itself.
Orville and the reporter continue making their round trips each day. On site, they parked their car strategically – near enough to the top of the ridge to benefit from the searing heat, but far enough away from it to avoid being cooked. They lived on junk food, cold strong coffee, and a few shared bottles of whiskey they called personal antifreeze. They napped in the car when they could.
One morning, an Adair firefighter told the two journalists the fiercely burning well would be capped later that day.
This was it! The moment of excitement . . . and danger . . . they’d been waiting for. The firefighter explained the work would proceed in stages. First, the firefighters would fill a 45-gallon drum with explosives. Next, the steel drum would be bolted to the end of a 50-foot boom attached to a bulldozer. Firefighters on the crawler tractor would use its big heavy bulldozer blade and sheets of corrugated metal as protection against the heat . . . and what would follow. The plan was for the operator to guide the boom, positioning the drum over the wellhead. Then the explosives would be ignited.
The theory was the massive explosion would rob the burning natural gas of the oxygen needed for combustion. If that worked, the crew could then begin the hazardous job of placing the new wellhead down through, and over, the screaming rush of raw natural gas, and secure it in place. Then, a huge valve in the wellhead mechanism could be closed, cutting off the flow of gas.
The procedure was extremely dangerous. First, raw natural gas is deadly . . . and odorless. The familiar ‘rotten egg’ odor is added later. Shifting winds could blow the dangerous gas down on unsuspecting firefighters and spectators. Second, the tiniest of sparks could reignite the gas, literally blowing up the site, again. The explosion would destroy the replacement wellhead equipment, and likely incinerate some of the firefighters trying to tame the well.
It worked! By the end of the day, the wild gas well had been brought under control. Adair, his crew and employees of the well owner were exhausted but in a celebratory mood as they prepared to head home.
The story was over. Bitter cold now descended on the inner side of the bowl-shaped depression around the gas well. A light snow was falling and this time it was staying. The two journalists were invited to a tiny village 20 miles away for drinks and a celebration party. The only place to hold it was a distressed old beer hall in what had been a hotel. They went. The place was warm . . . well, almost.
By 6 p.m., the two journalists could delay their departure no longer. The story was big and needed to be filed. They knew the national news services would be clamoring for their wrap-up story and pictures.
The journalists agreed to take turns driving. Both were exhausted. The young reporter agreed to drive first.
Orville told this part of the story later:
He was sound asleep in the front passenger seat. He was wakened when the car took a leap upward and then landed hard. Startled, Orville looked over at the young reporter behind the wheel. The reporter’s eyes were wide open . . . but he was sound asleep. Orville shook him awake with one hand as the car skidded down a gravel road, almost out of control, and with the other hand trying to regain control.
As it turned out, the young reporter had indeed fallen asleep. They’d been traveling on a straight paved backcountry road. Sleep took over. Eyes open and sound asleep he’d driven straight across a busy intersecting highway and down onto a secondary gravel road before Orville woke him.
As they sat gathering themselves, laughing nervously at their close call, a steady stream of transport trucks roared up and down the busy highway behind them.
Orville drove the rest of the way.
‘All Fired Up’ is copyright 2013 By James Osborne All Rights Reserved
(Note: All photos are in the public domain)