In January and February of 1991, Saddam Hussein's retreating troops detonated and set fire to 750 of Kuwait's 900 oil wells, creating a virtual hell on earth as 5 million barrels of oil a day fed the raging infernos and blackened the sky for days on end with choking, poisonous smoke.
Experts predicted it would take up to five years for professional firefighting teams to extinguish the fires. If they were left to burn out on their own, the fires might have raged for 100 years. But an international team of 16,000 firefighters and support staff assembled by Bechtel Corporation proved the experts wrong and snuffed the last well fire on Nov. 6, 1991.
According to the 1992 documentary film, "Fires of Kuwait," the firefighters employed a host of firefighting techniques to put out the fires. Plastic explosives were used to choke the fires of oxygen, Venturi tubes were used to raise the flames to safer heights and then maneuvered to deprive the flames of their fuel source, and millions and millions of gallons of salt water were pumped to the desert oilfields from the Persian Gulf by reversing the flow of a pipe that once pumped oil to the Gulf.
As the firefighters battled the blazing wells, support crews from HYTORC® Middle East worked alongside them to prepare the wells for capping to prevent the gushing oil geysers from reigniting. HYTORC faced the unprecedented challenge of cutting off oil wellhead equipment that had been mangled by explosives as oil spewed at them and covered them with slimy crude, saltwater sprayed them from the fire hoses, and the desert heat baked them at 135 degrees (57°C) . At times they were forced to work neck-deep in oil.
Initially, they tried cutting off the wellheads with wires strung between two bulldozers, but that process could take days and the wires were constantly snapping, so they had to find a better solution. They found their answer in an innovative technology that was still in its infancy at the time, abrasive waterjet. HYTORC turned to Jet Edge of Minnesota to rapidly develop several ultra-high pressure waterjet tools that included a tripod-mounted waterjet lance and a specially engineered lance that could be attached to an Athey wagon, a long boom-like device that is pushed by a bulldozer. They powered the waterjet cutters with several Jet Edge diesel-powered waterjet pumps.
Marty Schmitz, formerly of Jet Edge, recalled the miserable summer of 1991 when he took a leave of absence from Jet Edge to help HYTORC with its enormous task.
"It was hot and nasty and smoky and dirty," Schmitz recalled. "It was summertime in the desert and there were many 125-130 degree (52-54°C) days. Getting to the wells themselves was a challenge. You had to wade in oil up to your waist, and sometimes up to your neck. Ideally you would like to work on a well with the fire overhead because you weren't getting belted with oil when you went into the oil well's cellar but then you'd be getting sprayed with saltwater. It made for a long day."
Schmitz's crew worked from an oilfield float trailer equipped with a water tank, a Jet Edge waterjet pump and a flash barn that contained all of the hydraulic controls and protected the operator in the event of a flash fire.
"HYTORC's job was to prep the wells for the BOP (blowout preventer valve)," he said. "We did the pre-capping, prep work, and post-capping. Pre-capping included the cutting work and post-capping included cleaning the bolts off or, if the BOP wasn't 100% secure, we would have to redo the cut. We also cut pipelines and jetty lines that delivered oil to tankers in the port."
Schmitz noted that his crew frequently had to make on the fly adjustments to their waterjet equipment due to the nature of the mangled wellheads.
"It was something that had never happened before and every wellhead was different," he remembered. "You weren't grabbing stuff off the shelf. A lot of the stuff was made onsite. Fortunately they had many fabrication shops in the area."
Schmitz recalled that it took anywhere from an hour and 45 minutes to four to six hours to cut off a wellhead, depending on its condition.
HYTORC eventually would cut off about 90 percent of the wellheads using Jet Edge-powered equipment.
"The Jet Edge equipment performed very well considering the ugly environment," Schmitz noted. "Everything was oil soaked, slimy and nasty and everything was full of sand and dirt. It was a hostile environment."
After returning from Kuwait, Schmitz eventually started his own waterjet parts manufacturing company, Creus Services in Maple Grove, Minn. He continues to provide product development services to Jet Edge for its mobile waterjet cutting and surface preparation product line.
According to "Fires of Kuwait," the Kuwait oil firefighting project was the largest non-military mobilization in history and cost $1.5 billion U.S. In 2003, CNN reported that 1 billion barrels of oil went up in flames.
To this day, Kuwait is still recovering from the unparalleled environmental destruction wrought on them by Saddam Hussein, who was executed in 2006 for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
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