Three Safety Boss veterans recall the Kuwait oil fires
'We buried more than 50 Iraqis,' one says
As told to Annalise Klingbeil
George Connon, 61, went to Kuwait with Calgary-based Safety Boss Inc. as a wellhead specialist in February 1991. He was promoted to crew chief and became responsible for the safety of the crews. Today, he continues to do projects for Safety Boss. His career, running close to four decades, has taken him to wells around the world.
It was very hot. We had to wear coveralls to protect ourselves so that added more heat to us when we were doing our work. It was very exhausting for every one of us. It didn’t matter whether you were running the pump or what you were doing. Being covered in oil just made it a lot hotter. Your body temperature rises because the oil is sticking to you, covering up your pores so [they] couldn’t breathe properly.
We worked probably 14, 16 hours [a day]. It was enough to make the wells safe again so no one else would get hurt. If we knew we couldn’t get it all done in that day, we’d only do so much on the one well and go to another one [and] prepare.
Everybody helped each other to keep the morale up. Ourselves, the supervisors and that, we just went ahead and we didn’t put anybody in danger. We always had plans. We never just dove straight into it.
We only had one lad; he got burnt in the first month from a back flash from one of the wells that we put out. We always watched each other’s back. We worked safe. [The Safety Boss employee who was injured was flown in a jet, to Calgary for treatment as there were no major medical facilities in Kuwait. A doctor checked the employee, who was declared fine and returned to work two weeks later.]
We had medics, paramedics [and] they were brilliant. They would always be looking at you. They wouldn’t be standing around. They’d be around trying to help, making sure you were drinking enough water, babying you, nursing you.
It was absolutely thrilling when we knew that we put the last [well] out. It was like a big celebration to us. I’d do it again. I’d do it again in a New York minute. If it all started again, and even with my age, I’d be the first volunteer to go there and start working.
It was a high. It was adrenalin that kept you really pumped up. You think, “Well, this isn’t going to beat me. I’m going to beat it.” All of the oil companies were thinking, “How much environmental damage is it doing?” Well it’s done a lot, not only to ourselves – all the firefighters – but it’s done a lot of damage to the environment. I think some of us are probably paying for it now with inhaling all of the smoke and working in it and the oil and that. But to me it’s worth it. It was well worth it.
Mike Miller, 66, went to Kuwait in February 1991 as CEO of Safety Boss Inc. The company’s crews extinguished 168 wells in just 200 days – outperforming all other crews in Kuwait. Miller continues to work with Safety Boss, as owner, today.
I had previous contact with with Kuwait Oil Company (KOC). That was really how we ended up there. I had been over there about a year before that doing lectures for them on well control.
The U.S. Air Force came and picked us up in a big Galaxy C-5A, which are among the largest aircraft in the world. We had three complete sets of equipment plus our office [and] medical equipment as well. We basically were told to be independent for a year. We had to take everything that we thought we would need for a year. In other words, we took tires, we took filters, all sorts of things to service our equipment for one year.
Once you got on the ground you realized how immense it was. It was a very unreal world. There were whole sections of the country that didn’t see the sunlight for months and months, until we put those wells out. The roads were covered with oil. There were huge lakes of oil. It was a real macabre scene.
Just the immensity of the project was overwhelming in a sense. We had to take it a step at a time. We struggled with that first well, but we did it. I looked behind me and saw hundreds more wells burning and you think, “Jesus, we’re never going to get through this.” You just bite off a piece and chew that and away you go again.
I can’t say enough about the men that went there with me. It was just such an unreal world. So many risks, not just associated with the capping of the wells, but we lost trucks burnt up in oil lakes. There was unexploded ordnance all over the desert everywhere. We buried more than 50 Iraqis that we found on our work sites.
Originally they predicted [the job would take] five years or longer and I agreed with that. The reality is we did it all in eight months. Two hundred days. They were among the biggest wells in the world and we were just doing them one after the other. Pretty soon everybody learns how to deal with that stuff – where they stand when this happens, what their job is when this happens and that kind of thing.
The men were the biggest part of the story. They really risked their lives in the most extreme conditions imaginable. We were the only crew that stayed to cap the wells properly. We just put temporary caps on them at first; over the next year and a half after the wells were out we stayed and went back and put proper wellheads on them.
Well control and firefighting has been the passion of my life and that was the World Series. There were all kinds of technical improvements that came out of the Kuwait project that changed that business forever just in terms of how you approach those things and we used some pretty sophisticated equipment that became standard equipment after that job.
Mark Badick, 49, first went to Kuwait in April 1991. He left in March 1993. He went over as a blowout specialist and became a crew chief. He left Safety Boss in 2008 and today works for Nexen Inc.
We did lots of well control prior to going to Kuwait. I think the immensity of the project was the first thing you saw as you flew in. It was darker than night due to smoke cover. The sun couldn’t pierce the smoke. It was quite easy to stand out in the field and count 120 wells on fire around you.
The first thing you have to do in any well control is clear debris from around the wellhead. Then, you’ve got to knock the fire out. Then, you have to do source control. Those were the three basic steps. So, depending what position we were at on each well, it could have been any one of those three depending on what status we were from the day before.[You were] literally covered in oil from head to toe. It’s raining down on you steady. Even after hours when we were back in our accommodations, we’d be sitting cleaned up after work and you’re still getting droplets of oil on you. When you’re doing well control, you’re really submersed. [It’s] in your ears, in your eyes, in your nose. We looked like bronze statues.
I sold everything I owned and on my days off, I traveled around the world. It was pretty fun. I was in 27 countries in 20 months.
The wells were out in nine months, so the last 11 months was these two post projects, which were pretty mundane in comparison to what we had been doing before that. I could see it was wrapping up and I just didn’t want to go back to what I was doing before we went. You know, what do you do for an encore?
I’ve read articles where it was compared to people that went to war. They get home and they really don’t know how to fit back in or what to do because it was such a life-changing event. I went back to university to get an engineering degree because I just couldn’t do routine work around Alberta.