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Volume 20, Number 4July/August 1969

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Discovery! The Story of Aramco Then

Chapter 10: The Ten Days at Dammam 12

Written by Wallace Stegner
Illustrated by Don Thompson

SYNOPSIS—The year 1939 stands out in Aramco's history. It was the year King Ibn Sa'ud paid his first royal visit to the Company's now extensive installations and turned the valve that let Saudi Arabian oil pour into the first oil tanker ever to call at the new port they called Ras Tanura.

The King's visit also marked the end of the first stage of Aramco's history, a stage that began with the first gropings of financiers and adventurers in the 1920's and reached its climax on March 4, 1938, when Dammam No. 7 finally proved that Saudi Arabia had oil in commercial quantities. It also marked the end of the pioneering period and the beginningor so they thought thenof the development period when their main worries would be production, competition and the training of the new men. who even then were boarding ships in harbors half way across the world.

One of those men was a young mining engineer named Tom Barger. Barger, later to become president of the Company and chairman of the board, had been sent off to Arabia in a hurry and almost as quickly sent off to help explore the northern edge of the Empty Quarter. There he made the acquaintance of the great guide Khamis ibn Rimthan, immersed himself in the study of Arabic and set himself to learning how to send Morse code by wireless, cure constipation, fix generators and grease cars. They were skills most geologists may not have needed but which veterans in Arabia did.

Back in the Eastern Province, meanwhile, the Company was also tackling extra jobs. One was an effort to help define, on a contract basis, Saudi Arabia's traditionally vague but now suddenly valuable boundaries. The other was a hydrographic survey to take soundings in the Gulf.

To get on with the first job the Company had picked two surveyors, but one of them, Charlie Herring, was soon asked to take charge of the hydrographic party. He did but never completed the assignment. On July 5, 1938, Charlie and hi s wife Pauline were killed when the Calarabia, a Company launch, exploded between al-Khobar and Bahrain. They were the first American casualties, but not, as it turned out, the last.

Dammam No. 12 was the fourth large producing well in the Arab Zone. Spudded in on October 23, 1938, it was down to 4,725 feet on May 31, 1939, and by June 7, the crews had finished cementing the casing. Oil well drilling in 1939 was a great deal different from what it was in the early years of the century when a "gusher" was expected to drown half a county in valuable and irrecoverable crude before they got it bottled up. No. 12 was bottled from the beginning. They had her curbed like a dangerous horse.

On June 21 they began test-perforating at 4,565 feet, let the well flow for a while, and got a test of 1,700 barrels a day. Below the perforated section lay 150 feet more of productive strata. By July 8 they were ready to perforate the next stage of it under the direction of Harry Rector, who was acting as resident manager in the absence of Floyd Ohliger. Now that the camp had got past its hectic time and its gala time and settled into a routine, Floyd and his family were en route to the States for a vacation, by way of Rome and London.

On a midafternoon in July in the Eastern Province the heat does not beat down as it does in drier climates. It pours in a great engulfing tide, down from the brassy sky and up from the blinding rock and sand and breathes like a steam boiler through every wind that moves. Even with dark glasses, the eyes have trouble taking in all the light, and photographers, in the beginning, all think their light meters have gone crazy. The attention is inclined to wander, the body and brain to focus on minimum survival, on the mere exhalation and inhalation of hot wet air, on the heavy pound of the blood. Since they learned about them, there has been a stiff consumption of salt tablets among the drilling crews.

Against the fierce sky around No. 12, the derricks of neighboring wells shimmered, crawled, almost disappeared. The jabals over toward No. 1 did their special July dance. If an American fell into a daydream about the beach a few miles to the east of them, he adjusted his daydream to the realities, to a cool drink and a shower: the Gulf lapping the fringes of this white-hot shore would have been steaming like a fumarole.

Up on the stabbing board, 20 feet above the derrick floor, Bill Eisler and a helper had got the perforating gun into the lubricator (on top of the casing-head connections) and were preparing to lower it into the casing. In another minute, they would have come down from the stabbing board. A worker in khaki pants—the doctor objected if workers were allowed to work around machinery in their loose robes—was under the floor at the one-inch equalizer valve. Three crewmen stood outside the rig at the remote controls of the 6 3/8-inch master valve, awaiting Eisler's orders to open the gate. Monte Hawkins, the second American on the crew, had started for the hoist 150 feet away. Over in the shack three or four petroleum engineers, greasy with sweat, tried to keep their wet forearms and spongy hands from sticking to the papers they worked on.

That was when Dammam No. 12 exploded.

All Monte Hawkins heard was a sharp hiss as if the airhose of a compressor had been cut. Then he was flat on the ground, dazed and scrambling. Inside the shack the engineers felt the walls ram inward as if something soft and very heavy had hit them. Almost simultaneously they heard a dull, mushy BOOM! And a massive deafening roar like a waterfall or a hurricane swept over them and around them. They rushed to look out, their hair blown back, it seemed, by waves of overwhelming sound. They saw each other's opened mouths but heard nothing except their own shouting, faint and far away, as they took in the incredible scene uncoiling before them.

At No. 12 black smoke, shot with red and yellow flames, boiled out of the cellar. Up, through and around the laced steel of the 135-foot derrick it rose and bent stiffly southward in a wind they had not known was blowing. Then, one shocking instant later, a column of flames 200 feet high shot into the air like something played from a hose.

The men in the shack did the frantic, random things that great excitement makes men do. They rushed toward the fire, they grabbed up papers as if their own shack were burning and they must save the records, they seized the telephone and gabbled in it, as if the explosion would not have shocked the whole camp alert in a split second. Ernie Wichern, like the man who points and clicks his camera instinctively as the Hindenburg blows up in the air before his eyes, rushed outside and stood spraddle-legged, trying to focus on the boil of flame and smoke with the derrick's tower almost hidden in it.

Up nearer the rig, the action was more critical. Some said afterward that at the first hiss, as the perforating gun fired prematurely in the lubricator, Bill Eisler shoved the worker beside him off the stabbing board, clear of the fire. Blown or pushed, the worker never moved after he struck the derrick floor. A second or two later, as Monte Hawkins was scrambling to his feet, Eisler himself jumped, hit the derrick floor, and lay where he had fallen. Hawkins, looking back, saw Eisler begin to crawl, and without a moment's thought went back into that terrible heat to get him. His face shriveled, his eyes slitted and his lips drawn back from his teeth, staggering, half-blind, being cooked alive, he struggled toward Eisler and was chased back, gathered his arms before his face and drove in again. Eisler was hitching himself along, a broken and agonized animal. Hawkins caught at his hands; the skin peeled off in his grip. He got hold of armpits, wrists, the remnants of clothes, and dragged and rolled him and got his arm and lifted him and pulled him along with his burned arm hooked around his neck. The crewmen who had been at the remote controls of the master valve were by now with him, helping, and Roy Hollingsworth, the first man from outside to reach the fire, skidded up in a sedan. Together they lifted Bill Eisler into the car.

Now others were there to help. From over at the camp the cars and trucks were roaring in. It turned out that the worker who had been under the floor had crawled out miraculously unhurt. It was just as well he had; about this time the fire began setting off the caps and powder on the derrick floor to add their bit to the conflagration.

They sent Eisler off to the hospital to die. Before the car had turned around, within 10 minutes of the explosion, the crowd standing back away from the heat, not yet organized for anything, saw the derrick begin to lean. Before their eyes the steel girders at its base melted like wax. Wichern, his film running out, got a shot as the derrick lurched downward toward the blown funnel of smoke, and then ran a few yards closer, behind some rolls of roofing paper, and squinted through his finder again.

The derrick was gone, flattened out in the smoke, not even the crash of its falling audible over the howl and rush and roar. Things less combustible than steel might have melted, and things taller than derricks fallen inaudibly, in that holocaust. Oil at tremendous pressure, coming from nearly a mile down, was feeding the fire at the rate of probably 10,000 barrels a day.

Nobody could ever quite reconstruct how it had all happened, except that, somehow, the perforating gun went off in the lubricator. The worker below the floor had opened the one-inch equalizer valve, and this might have caused a surge of gas to kick the gun up to the top of the lubricator, where it hit its firing pin against the "go-devil" that normally is dropped down the hole later. Or the wire line might have tightened up enough to pull the gun up against the top of the lubricator and the "go-devil." Whatever it was, it was enough. Some tiny tick or scratch or jar, some bubble of gas as inconsequential as a hiccup, and all that enormous curbed energy erupted in destructive flame.

For the 200 American men of Dhahran, isolated, remote from the equipment and expertise of experienced professionals, the fire at Dammam No. 12 was a staggering challenge. It was one of the world's most spectacular oil-well fires, one that brought people to emergency stations halfway around the globe, and to fight it, Harry Rector, facing the worst emergency in the Company's history, had not a single professional to call on. He had cabled San Francisco. He had advised Bahrain. He had intercepted Ohliger at Rome. But he couldn't wait for their answers: the emergency was now. Inexperienced he may have been, but then and there he and Herb Fritzie, in charge of one crew, and Bill Eltiste in charge of another, were the best there was.

The first step was obvious: assign priorities. Because No. 12 was a good distance from the other wells, there was no serious danger of the fire's spreading. The real danger was that the master valve and the connections on the main casing would be destroyed, which would probably destroy the well, and might also spray the entire camp with burning oil. Besides, if the well ran wild, it might seriously deplete the whole oil field by releasing gas pressure and possibly channeling water into the oil zone. Later there would be the problem of the toxic gas being released. If they put out the fire without controlling the well, a shift in the wind could wipe out the whole camp. The women, therefore, might have to be evacuated. But that would come later. Now, they would focus on the casing valves and fittings.

The fire fighters started water flowing continuously into the cellar to carry off the unburned oil from there and from the immediate surroundings of the well. They also flowed water onto the casing fittings to help keep them cool. They strung together about 400 feet of eight-inch pipe and with a side-boom tractor shoved one end of it to the head of the fire to carry away the oil and gas, and burned these fuels as they came out the other end. Herb Fritzie and a drilling crew went to work on one of the six-inch lines normally used to pump oil to al-Khobar for the Bahrain refinery, and, after installing pumps at al-Khobar, converted the line to carry water. But the pumps could deliver only about 300 gallons a minute, and a minimum of 400 gallons was needed for the Casoc fire engine. So Fritzie's crew ran a pipeline to Dammam No. 8, which had been completed in salt water, and got enough water from that well. John Ames and another drilling crew, working all night, laid steam lines from several of the boiler plants adjacent to No. 12, and rigged steam nozzles to blast the fire away from vital connections. Then they installed steam jets in the eight-inch line to boost the oil and gas through, so as to get these fuels away from the fire more rapidly. Steam nozzles were also used to keep the flames from blowing in the faces of the workmen, but they were only partially effective. The fire engine was used to pump water through the nozzles.

Efficiency was their trademark. Long before dawn they had a first-aid station, a motor pool, a stockpile of all available pipe and fittings, awnings under which exhausted men could rest in the shade during the day, and a field kitchen where Chow Lee dispensed coffee and hamburgers. A little after 2:30 in the morning the word came down from the hospital that Bill Eisler was dead. Red-eyed, exhausted, they went on setting up their battle gear, and after daylight they went off to their shifts on other wells, and the crews which had been working at these wells all night replaced them at the fire. Production was what they were all there for; it could not be stopped just because of a fire. By daylight, asbestos screens had arrived from Bahrain. Bill Eltiste and Herb Fritzie pushed a screen up as close as they could stand, while men with hoses, coming behind, kept them wet and steaming. They thought they could see that the fire was coming from a broken side line in the cellar below the master gate, and their baptism of fire convinced them beyond any doubt that they needed asbestos suits, more screens, extra fire hose, fog nozzles, gas masks and Bullard fresh-air masks. Rector wired San Francisco to get them started, and Skinner telephoned Roy Lebkicher in London, asking him to enlist help from Abadan and Basra, and to send down by chartered plane what London could provide. Lebkicher ran into difficulties, for in midsummer of 1939 London was in the midst of war jitters and was desperately preparing for anything. He couldn't get any equipment released in London, but by hunting all over the United Kingdom, he and the others in the London office managed to pick up gas masks, asbestos suits and other gear and to put it aboard a plane at Croydon airport within 48 hours after Skinner's call.

At turned out that the shipment could go only as far as Rome, but Floyd Ohliger there arranged a transfer to an Italian plane; the Italians were remarkably eager to cooperate. The British, harassed and in trouble, but not likely to permit Italians to fly over and among their oil strongholds of the Middle East, intercepted the Italian plane at Basra and took the equipment on from there. That was July 13. Meantime, some asbestos suits, together with additional fresh-air masks, had been sent by Bapco from Bahrain and by Anglo-Iranian (formerly Anglo-Persian) from Abadan. Bapco had also sent over Mollie Brogan, a registered nurse, with special medicines and supplies.

Since it was summer, the geologists had returned to camp to work on their reports, but Max Steineke had a futile time trying to keep them away from the fire. Dick Kerr and others were helping at the well every night. All over the camp, crews finished their regular shifts and were drawn irresistibly down to No. 12. Shop men who had worked all day spent all night helping to lay water lines, making special wrenches and devices that suggested themselves to the fire fighters. They were getting constant advice, much of it good, from San Francisco and elsewhere, but advice wasn't what they needed most. What they most needed was to get a clear idea of where the main trouble was; then they could devise ways of fixing it.

Fritzie, Walt Sims of Bapco, and especially Eltiste did it for them. First Fritzie and Sims, in asbestos suits, with wire cable around them, went in behind a screen, right to the base of the roaring, boiling column of flame and smoke, and fought to close the upper and lower Shafer gates. Before they were driven back, writhing and almost insane with the heat, they closed one wheel two turns; there it stuck. The control rod of the other was bent, and would have to be straightened before the gate could be closed off. But the stuck one might yet be broken loose; they tried it again next day, four of them on a four-foot wrench, working behind a bigger movable shield that the shop had built overnight.

With the hoses and fog nozzles spraying over their laboring bodies, and soaking the ground and the hissing, steaming shield, it was like working in the throat of a volcano during a cloudburst. But heaving together on the wrench, they broke the wheel loose and started it around, staying in' the furnace blaze until it could not be borne another second, and still hanging on for one more turn, and another. Then the control rod broke clean off, and they were dragged back to safety. But when they could look again they were cheered; the flame was definitely lower. They could not tell whether the roar was less or not; they had a feeling they would never hear properly again.

Now it was Bill Eltiste's turn to go in behind his screen, clear to the cellar wall. He could see the source of the fire—it came mainly from the split swage nipple on top of the control valve. And it seemed to him that there were better ways of working on it than by trying to straighten the bent rod of the second wheel and get the lower Shafer shut that way. He was a big easy-going low-voiced man with the kind of imagination that inventors draw on, and a brain as orderly and reliable as a good watch. He found a pencil and a scrap of paper and he drew a picture of what seemed to be a huge iron spoon. The "spoon," he said, would partly cap the nipple. John Box took the drawing and went to work in the shop.

Next day, Box brought up the iron spoon he had made to Eltiste's specifications. Eltiste had already had his crew join together two hundred feet of eight-inch pipe. Box fitted the spoon to the end of this pipe and a pair of side-boom Caterpillar tractors picked up the pipe and shoved the spoon into the center of the fire. It took some steering; they jockeyed and probed through the heat and smoke, with Eltiste trying to direct them from behind the shield. Then suddenly the spoon slid over the broken swage nipple and the column of fire dropped as if a burner valve had been turned down. At the end of the two hundred feet of pipe, the oil gushed out in a thick stream that blackened the sand and flowed down into a low spot and began to puddle. The noise fell with the column of fire; they found themselves shouting more loudly than they needed to.

With the flames reduced by half, Eltiste, Cal Ross, and Ed Braun got closer to the valve than they had been able to before, and as soon as they got a look they gave up both the plan to straighten the bent rod and the notion of trying to close the Shafer. There was an alternate plan, suggested from San Francisco, that they tunnel in from sixty or seventy feet away, put a "hot tap" on the main casing fifteen or twenty feet below the cellar. A hot tap is a routine procedure by which an intercepting line is attached to a main line while oil is still flowing through. Engineers simply weld a fitting to the line to be tapped, attach a flange to the fitting and bolt a valve to the flange. Then it's a simple matter of inserting a specially fitted tapping machine through the valve and cutting a hole into the main line. Through the intercepting pipe line that is attached to the valve, oil can be drawn out or, as San Francisco was suggesting, mud could be pumped into the well, to block the oil shooting upward from below.

Everybody knew it was going to take a good deal of time and might be dangerous because gas might seep into the tunnel through the porous and cracked limestone near the bore hole, so Tom Barger, once a mining engineer, was assigned to work it out. He drew up his plans during the night and work started at daybreak. But this plan was abandoned too. Eltiste, Ross and Braun saw that it would be easier to put a hot tap on the four-inch bypass line that emerged from the casing below the main valve, and force mud in that way.

By now, though they had worked with only snatches of rest, going from routine shifts to fire-fighting shifts and back again for a solid week, they were doggedly determined to get the rest of that fire out—and by themselves. The word had got around that not only was Anglo-Iranian coming in with men and equipment, but that Charley Potter, the drilling superintendent on leave in the States, had started by plane from Los Angeles to New York to meet Myron Kinley. Kinley, the most famous oil-well fire fighter in the world, was on his way with a crew from Texas, and had announced that he was prepared to fly the Atlantic in a chartered airplane to kill the fire. This was not something many people had done in 1939, but the tired boys in Dhahran were not impressed. "Nuts!" Ed Braun is supposed to have said. "This is our fire." So while they owned it, they made the most of it.

The one-inch equalizer valve was burned, and could not be closed. On July 15, a week after the fire broke out, they decided to try to pinch off the one-inch equalizer, although they recognized that it would be a dangerous job: a split in the already burned pipe at the pinch point could spray the crew with blazing oil. Nevertheless, seeing no alternative, they put a clamp on a 20-foot torque tube, and very slowly, expecting the pipe to crush or split at any moment, they screwed down on it and pinched the pipe shut. Again they were cheered, for the fire and noise fell abruptly.

By now they had reduced the flare to a quarter of what it had been in the beginning. Ohliger, who had sent his wife on to London and flown back to Dhahran, cabled Skinner that there were only 1,000 to 2,000 barrels a day coming through the swage nipple now. Skinner began to slow up on his assembling of worldwide help; Potter held Kinley in New York pending developments. While the professionals were hesitating, the amateurs closed in.

There were two valves on the four-inch line from the cellar connections: one near the casinghead, and one at the top end, near the rim of the cellar. They knew that the top one was closed, but they could not get near enough to open it because of the intense heat. They hoped and believed that the lower one was open, so that an effective hot tap might be put on the line between the two valves. After the shop built the hot tap, they screwed the nuts on one by one under the protection of shields, with their heads and shoulders hanging over into the cellar which even at one-fourth of its original fury was a fair substitute for Hell. Ross and Braun put the nuts on, alternating, being dragged out half dead and going in again after a rest. It was a.job that called for muscle and bravery, and it took two days.

On July 18, 10 days after the explosion seared the flesh from Bill Eisler's bones, they tested the connections for the last time. Haggard, blistered, scorched, exhausted, they got the word that things were about ready; they dropped back and waited, watching the diminished but still fearful flare that roared into the summer sky and the smoke that blew thick and rolling across the jabals. Their unheard shouting fell away. Somebody, somewhere, gave a signal—a nod, a lifted hand. They felt how the bit began boring into the side of the bypass line. Unable to see what they knew was happening, they could only watch the column of smoke and fire for the hoped-for results. If it worked, if the lower valve was open, mud would rush down the bypass line into the well as soon as the bit broke through. If it didn't work—well, then they would have to try something else. They waited, watching the apparently quenchless column of smoke and flame.

Then they sprang from the ground, they turned to pound one another on the back; the shouting that for 10 days had gone unheard in the roar of the fire burst hoarsely into an abrupt stillness. The fire had gone out like a turned-out light.

There was some self-conscious understatement, a certain controlled pride, in the cable that Ohliger sent Skinner. It spoke for the whole two hundred amateurs. "Fire extinguished," it said. "Hole full of mud. Professional fire fighters not needed."

They proved themselves on No. 12. If they had not been initiated before, they were now. The fire cost the Company vast amounts of money and deprived the Government of substantial royalties; it cost the crew two lives and 10 days of heart-bursting work. Shaikh Abdullah expressed everybody's most fervent wish when he cabled that he hoped this would be the last accident of its kind. But as a test of what was in them it could hardly have been better devised. Every capacity that they possessed had a chance to shine during those 10 days and in celebration of the way they had handled themselves, the Government—for this one occasion—relaxed its prohibition law, and the first beer that was ever in al-Hasa came across from Bahrain, and the firemen really tied one on.


This article appeared on pages 20-27 of the July/August 1969 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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