Darkening Skies: The Qatar Well Fires of the 1950s

In 1953, the Qatar Petroleum Company had been developing the Dukhan oilfield for 13 years. However, the area was still remote from the main centers of industrial production and so presented certain challenges to setting up and operating the drill sites. Most of the heavy equipment was shipped by dhow via Bahrain to Zekrit, where the company had built a jetty. There were no cranes to unload the cargoes, which had to be lifted by local workers onto lorries waiting on the quayside, then taken to the oilfield. A basic landing strip provided more immediate access, but this was only for company flights. Otherwise, Qatar remained a mystery to the outside world.

Fire in the Desert

In March 1953, well DK35 was coring the Arab-D reservoir when it showed signs of blowing out and was shut in by the blow-out preventers. Heavy mud was prepared to block the well, but the preventer rubbers began to leak. On the 28th, the well blew out and caught fire spontaneously.

In a film about the disaster, “Fire at Dukhan,” the narrator breezily announces: “She went up at midday on Saturday, all 3,200 pounds to the square inch of her, and it wasn’t long before the derrick and the upper works collapsed in the heat into a pile of melted junk!”

Although water pumped from the sea helped to cool the ground, wreckage and firefighters, this was not enough to extinguish the flames and it was clear that a different approach was required.

Two years before, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company – a shareholder in QPC – had used the services of American firefighter Myron M. Kinley to fight an oil well fire at Naft Safid in Iran. A call now went out for Kinley, who had just completed work on a well fire in Louisiana. Upon arriving in Dukhan, he carried out an immediate inspection of the site. The first stage was to clear the tangled mass of structural steel wreckage from around the burning well. The task was complicated by the fact that no one could get closer to the fire than 60 feet because of its intense heat. He ordered an Athey hook be built in the Dukhan workshop. This was a 60-foot boom assembled on a bulldozer with a large hook on its end, designed to clear away the junk. The bulldozer was clad with galvanized sheets to protect the driver from the blaze. Each day, it crawled back and forth, sometimes hooking mangled parts but more often catching nothing. On the tenth day, the wind changed direction, forcing Kinley to go “fishing” for wreckage from another direction.

The next stage was to put out the fire. Once the debris had been removed, a water-cooled tank containing 450 pounds of gelignite was pushed toward the fire and detonated with an electrical charge. The explosion blew out the well head fittings but extinguished the fire only briefly. A second explosive charge in a drum did the trick, snuffing out the flame like a candle. At this juncture, the sound of escaping gas resembled the thunder and scream of several jet engines; the ground reverberated with the vibration and the danger of the oil and gas catching light was always present.

Image Caption

The blazing well site of DK20, Dec. 1956. Photos are from the BP Archives.

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In 1953, the Qatar Petroleum Company had been developing the Dukhan oilfield for 13 years. However, the area was still remote from the main centers of industrial production and so presented certain challenges to setting up and operating the drill sites. Most of the heavy equipment was shipped by dhow via Bahrain to Zekrit, where the company had built a jetty. There were no cranes to unload the cargoes, which had to be lifted by local workers onto lorries waiting on the quayside, then taken to the oilfield. A basic landing strip provided more immediate access, but this was only for company flights. Otherwise, Qatar remained a mystery to the outside world.

Fire in the Desert

In March 1953, well DK35 was coring the Arab-D reservoir when it showed signs of blowing out and was shut in by the blow-out preventers. Heavy mud was prepared to block the well, but the preventer rubbers began to leak. On the 28th, the well blew out and caught fire spontaneously.

In a film about the disaster, “Fire at Dukhan,” the narrator breezily announces: “She went up at midday on Saturday, all 3,200 pounds to the square inch of her, and it wasn’t long before the derrick and the upper works collapsed in the heat into a pile of melted junk!”

Although water pumped from the sea helped to cool the ground, wreckage and firefighters, this was not enough to extinguish the flames and it was clear that a different approach was required.

Two years before, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company – a shareholder in QPC – had used the services of American firefighter Myron M. Kinley to fight an oil well fire at Naft Safid in Iran. A call now went out for Kinley, who had just completed work on a well fire in Louisiana. Upon arriving in Dukhan, he carried out an immediate inspection of the site. The first stage was to clear the tangled mass of structural steel wreckage from around the burning well. The task was complicated by the fact that no one could get closer to the fire than 60 feet because of its intense heat. He ordered an Athey hook be built in the Dukhan workshop. This was a 60-foot boom assembled on a bulldozer with a large hook on its end, designed to clear away the junk. The bulldozer was clad with galvanized sheets to protect the driver from the blaze. Each day, it crawled back and forth, sometimes hooking mangled parts but more often catching nothing. On the tenth day, the wind changed direction, forcing Kinley to go “fishing” for wreckage from another direction.

The next stage was to put out the fire. Once the debris had been removed, a water-cooled tank containing 450 pounds of gelignite was pushed toward the fire and detonated with an electrical charge. The explosion blew out the well head fittings but extinguished the fire only briefly. A second explosive charge in a drum did the trick, snuffing out the flame like a candle. At this juncture, the sound of escaping gas resembled the thunder and scream of several jet engines; the ground reverberated with the vibration and the danger of the oil and gas catching light was always present.

The final stage was to cap the well. After a nine-foot collar had been lowered onto the well, the flange and collar were removed, and the capping head lowered into place and bolted down against the immense pressure coming up from the hole. This was the most dangerous part of the operation, since the well could have reignited at any moment. However, 15 days after the fire had started, the well was capped and DK 35 was secured.

Afterward, there was an investigation into the causes. It was found that there had been a failure to keep the hole filled with mud while pulling out the drill pipe, and the blow-out preventer equipment had been incorrectly operated by closing a control gate on a collar instead of on the drill pipe itself.

Within two weeks, DK35 was connected to the field production system.

By the end of 1953, output from the Dukhan field was 4.5 million tons a year.

The Athey hook was kept on – the wisdom of that decision would become apparent two years later when another well, DK20, caught light.

A Whodunnit – Persian Gulf-style

Despite Qatar’s physical isolation and scant population, it was by no means immune from events elsewhere. In 1951, nationalization of the Iranian oil industry had caused QPC to increase oil production to make up for the shortfall from Anglo-Iranian and then, when Iranian oil exports returned in 1953, to cut it back again.

But, all this paled when the Suez Crisis broke out.

A slow fuse had been burning for some time. The ruler of Qatar, Sheikh Ali bin Abdullah Al Thani, had established an education system that relied on teachers from abroad, many of whom were Egyptians who were enthralled by the nationalism of newly-elected Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser. On Aug. 16, 1956, 2,000 people demonstrated in Doha, carrying Egyptian flags and chanting anti-British slogans. As the Suez Crisis escalated in October, there was another demonstration.In early November, saboteurs blew up the two oil pipelines between Umm Bab and Umm Said, which blazed until work gangs were able to fix them. There was a general strike in Dukhan and Umm Said, and sporadic strikes in Doha.

A British warship arrived off the coast.

This undercurrent of discontent erupted spectacularly on Dec. 20, 1956 when the DK20 well was set alight. Witnesses reported fire billowing through a one-inch hole in the well assembly. Petroleum Week reported that it was “A Whodunnit – Persian Gulf-style,” and the oilmen had no doubt that sabotage was the cause: “No worm ate that hole through the metal except the two-legged variety,”remarked one.

Soon, up to 7,000 barrels of oil a day were gushing out at a 45-degree angle. The well fire at DK35 was still fresh in the collective memory and now it seemed that history was repeating itself.

Myron Kinley was busy putting out sabotaged wells in Kuwait, so the company engaged his former deputy, Paul “Red” Adair, who had visited Qatar for the well fire of 1953 and was well acquainted with operations at Dukhan. Meanwhile, QPC managers took certain precautions as they awaited Adair’s arrival. The cellar – a pit in the ground beneath the wellhead for blowout preventers and other equipment – was filled with water in order to keep the rest of the wellhead cool and intact. They retrieved the Athey hook, the relic of the DK35 fire, from storage. With the hook attached to its boom, the bulldozer advanced on the fire and pulled away the remaining fence to allow clear access to the wellhead.

Adair arrived and worked on the fire for the next few days. He ordered the workmen to get more fire pumps working, all pumping seawater into a big tank. From there, more pumps sent the water at high pressure to six jets that cooled people and equipment working close to the fire. He then used explosives to blow up any obstacles at the top of the well so that oil, gas and flames could shoot vertically into the air.

On closer inspection, Adair decided to remove what remained of the well tree and make up a new cap in the Dukhan workshop. They prepared an explosive drum with 500 pounds of Geophex. After soaking the ground around the well with water for another 24 hours, they set off the charge just below the base of the flame. It blew out the fire, but the men kept the water hoses going for another 24 hours as a precaution. As with DK35, they had to be very careful of naked lights and sparks, since large quantities of oil and gas were still spurting out. Fortunately, on most afternoons there was an onshore breeze that gently blew the oil column to one side, keeping the oil away from the well site.

Adair and his three assistants advanced cautiously on the wellhead and unbolted the wrecked top of the tree. Then, using a crane, they slowly swung the replacement cap through the shooting column of oil and gas to place it astride the flow. A tragicomic scene ensued: the men, soaked in oil, slipped and slithered in a desperate attempt to secure the cap with a single bolt to the flange. Finally, they turned the valve handle to shut off the well, and a great cheer went up. The well site – once filled with a hissing, grumbling cacophony of escaping oil and gas – fell into an eerie silence.

It was New Year’s Eve. Geologist Peter Walmsley recalls that a seasonal party was in full swing at the club when Red Adair and his team, covered in oil, arrived to announce that they had capped the well. A cry went up for free refreshments all around, and the celebrations flowed into the night.

Conclusion

These well fires are an important part of the oil history of Qatar, as a major part of a wider narrative of fire fighting in the Middle East. From the early days of development to the devastation left in the wake of Saddam Hussein’s retreating army, well fires were a rare but dangerous feature of life in the oil industry, matched only by the bravery and ingenuity of those who helped to put them out. Today, in Dukhan, the site of DK 20 and the Athey hook stand as solitary reminders of the torrid events of the 1950s.

Acknowledgements: The author would like to thank Peter Morton and Peter Walmsley for their kind assistance.

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