Midafternoon, July 8, 1939. The stifling, humid Persian Gulf heat blankets the drilling rig at Dammam No. 12. A short distance away other oil well derricks seem to float in the air as the shimmering heat turns the summer light of Saudi Arabia into a distorting lens.
Two men are at work on well No. 12's stabbing board, a 20-foot-high platform erected temporarily to expedite the casing of a well. One man works in the cellar under the floor of the rig. Another walks away toward a hoist. Four petroleum engineers analyze data in a nearby shack.
Suddenly a giant whoosh of air hammers the walls of the shack inward. The man walking away from the rig is blasted flat to the ground. At the same instant the swift hiss of air booms into a shattering explosion that rocks the afternoon stillness. Smoke boils in a black shroud around the 135-foot-high derrick. Red and yellow flames shoot 200 feet into the desert air....
Thus one of the most spectacular oil well fires in the world—one that brought a global alert in war-troubled times—burst upon the Dhahran producing camp of the California Standard Oil Company, now known as the Arabian American Oil Company.
The odds against the survival of the three members of the drilling crew at work on the rig were overwhelming. Bill Eisler and his Arab helper leaped 20 feet from the stabbing board to the floor of the derrick. The helper never moved again. Eisler, stunned and burning alive, inched brokenly from the heart of the holocaust. The Arab crew member working in the cellar of the rig crawled out unhurt, an incredible escape.
Monte Hawkins, the man who had been flattened while walking toward the hoist, picked himself up and started to run from the raging fire. He turned and saw Eisler struggling in the flames.
Hawkins reversed himself and ran to help. The skin-searing heat drove him back. Again he forced himself toward the fire. Three Arab crewmen who had been working at a remote-control station just off the rig when the fire started joined Hawkins in the courageous rescue.
Trucks and cars speeding from the camp began to converge upon the fire. Two hundred American men and their families, halfway around the world from the United States and isolated by gathering war clouds, were stricken with awe by the lurid pillar of fire. But far from immobilizing them, the tragic fire was about to bring their courage and ingenuity into sharp focus.
The fire roared deafeningly as the crowd gathered. A mixture of gas and crude oil, driven by tremendous mile-deep pressures, ran wild past open or damaged valves and fed the growing spears of flame. The fire was being fueled at the rate of 10,000 barrels a day.
Ten minutes after the fire started, the crowd saw the steel legs of the girder standing in the cellar melt. The 135-foot-high rig collapsed into billows of ink-black smoke. It fell soundlessly under the shuddering roar of the fire.
"What happened?" whispered new arrivals. The question can never be answered. The log of Dammam No. 12 showed that the well had been started on October 23, 1938. By May 31, 1939, drilling had progressed through the B and C members of the Arab Zone of geological strata. June 7: well casing was cemented in place. June 21: perforation started in the casing at 4,565 feet to test the flow of oil.
When drilling is completed and the well is ready to come in, casing is cemented into place in the well hole through the oil-bearing formation. The casing is then perforated by a gun-like device which is lowered into the hole to the desired level and fires steel projectiles through the casing, creating small openings through which the oil flows.
On July 8 all was in readiness to perforate at a lower level for another flow test. The perforating gun was in place, ready to be lowered into the hole. Some think the gun went off prematurely as Eisler and his assistant, up on the stabbing board, made final preparations to lower away. The crew member in the cellar opened a valve and may have released a surge of gas that kicked the gun up against another piece of equipment where it hit its firing pin. Or the guide wire may have tightened just enough to pull the gun up against other equipment and so set it off.
The second big question on everybody's mind was: 'What can we do?"
Harry Rector, the company's acting resident manager, cabled San Francisco headquarters, radioed nearby Bahrain Island where the Bahrain Petroleum Company refinery was likely to have some fire-fighting equipment, and cabled Floyd Ohliger, the vacationing resident manager then on his way through Rome. Next he formed two emergency crews. Herb Fritzie headed one, Bill Eltiste the other.
Luckily the other wells on the Dammam Dome were far enough away from No. 12 to minimize the danger of the fire spreading to them. However, the possibility of the master valve and the connections on the main casing of No. 12 being destroyed raised the spectre of the entire camp being sprayed with burning oil.
Water supply systems to fight the fire were rapidly improvised. One was a swiftly joined pipe line from another well that had hit salt water instead of oil. More than 400 gallons of water a minute were thus produced to supply the company's fire engine.
Water was pumped into the cellar of No. 12 to flood away unburned oil that had accumulated. Four hundred feet of eight-inch pipe were strung together and one end deposited by side-boom tractors at the head of the fire to carry away some of the gas and oil as it surged to the surface.
Through the night the desperate work went on. A little past 2:30 a.m. word came that Bill Eisler had died. By dawn fire-fighting efforts had become orderly and efficient. A first-aid station, car pool, stock pile of pipe and fittings, and a field kitchen had been organized.
At daybreak the first outside help arrived: asbestos screens from Bahrain. Fritzie and Eltiste immediately put them to work. The two men moved in on the fire behind the screens while others followed them with hoses and doused them with streams of water. The hazardous reconnaissance proved that they urgently needed asbestos suits, more fire hose, fog nozzles, more fire screens, gas masks and fresh-air masks.
Rector wired the emergency supply list to San Francisco. In turn, San Francisco called the London office to have the supplies airlifted from there. But England was apprehensively preparing for the worst from Germany. Nothing could be spared in London, so Roy Lebkicher scoured the United Kingdom for the equipment. Within 48 hours the shipment left Croydon airfield.
The flight could go only as far as Rome. There Ohliger made arrangements for the Italians to relay it. But the British did not want Italian planes flying over Middle Eastern oil fields. They intercepted the flight at Basra in Iraq and then completed the relay to Dhahran themselves.
The valorous fire fighters continued to work around the clock. They needed special equipment to get into the eye of the holocaust and the shop built it, sometimes in a matter of hours. The first break came when Herb Fritzie, Walt Sims of Bapco and two other men got deep enough into the fire in a series of agonizing thrusts to force a gate valve closed with a four-foot wrench. At last the fire lowered.
Then Eltiste took his turn again. This time he found the source of the fire. A man who read engineering handbooks the way some read mystery stories, Eltiste moved back from the fire and described to John Box a big iron spoon-like device he wanted built. Box hurried to the shop and overnight fashioned the strange object.
When the "spoon" was ready, Eltiste had his crew join 200 feet of eight-inch pipe. The spoon was fitted to the pipe. Then a pair of side-boom tractors carried the pipe-handled spoon forward. Eltiste moved in ahead and directed the maneuver from behind a fire screen. It was a tricky tactic. But suddenly the upside-down spoon was right where Eltiste wanted it—atop a broken swage nipple on the well's control valve.
The great fire dropped like a Bunsen burner suddenly turned down. A big part of the battle was won.
However, another danger had arisen: what if they put out the fire but could not control the well? The hazard of poisonous gas led to a swift decision. Women and children were shipped to Bahrain Island. Preparations were made to evacuate the entire camp if necessary.
The final phase arrived. A week had passed and men were exhausted from carrying on their regular duties while doggedly helping the emergency crews. Word came that experts from Anglo-Iranian were coming with more equipment. And the doughty battlers at Dammam No. 12 also heard that Myron Kinley, the best-known oil well fire fighter in the world, was getting ready to fly across the Atlantic with his crew.
One man, Ed Braun, spoke for all at No. 12. He is supposed to have said: "We don't need any of these experts. This is our fire."
When Eltiste's spoon snuffed out a good part of the soaring flame, the world-wide assembly of experts and equipment was slowed down. Kinley was held in New York. While the professionals awaited further word, the amateurs closed in for the final round.
A "hot tap" was devised which they hoped would permit mud to be pumped into the fiery volcano. Braun, backing up his words with action, teamed with Cal Ross to attach the hot tap to a line in No. 12's flaming cellar. They alternated bolting the nuts that would hold the tap. Each was dragged away from the flames time and time again before the task was done.
On July 18, ten days after the first blast of fire claimed two lives, the hot tap was completed and a drilling bit bored into the cellar line to which the tap was attached. As the bit broke through into the line, mud surged in and flowed down the fiery throat of the well.
The fire "went out like a light."
The brave men were tired but jubilant. Floyd Ohliger sent a cable to San Francisco: FIRE EXTINGUISHED. HOLE FULL OF MUD. PROFESSIONAL FIRE FIGHTERS NOT NEEDED.
Dammam No. 12 had created its own pro's.