Article Derived From Transcript of YouTube Video: The Worst Oil Disaster Ever

Transcript of YouTube Video: The Worst Oil Disaster Ever

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In February 1991, following Iraq's failed invasion of Kuwait, the retreating Iraqi army sabotaged over 700 oil wells, causing an ecological and economic catastrophe with fires that could have burned for decades. The disaster resulted in thick smoke covering the skies and an estimated 5 to 6 million barrels of oil lost daily. Extinguishing these fires was an immense challenge that required navigating through war-torn landscapes filled with unexploded ordnance and forming toxic lakes of oil. Among the international teams that arrived to aid in the firefighting efforts was a group of 23 Hungarian firefighters with a unique custom-built vehicle—a tank retrofitted with jet engines, capable of generating an immense water cannon to extinguish the fires. The operation was a complex and dangerous one, involving clearing mines, pumping seawater, and devising innovative methods to cut off fuel and cool the surroundings. It took over 10,000 people working for more than eight months to quell the inferno, marking one of the worst ecological disasters in history.

Detailed Transcript of YouTube Videos

The Catastrophe Unfolds

It's like looking at the gateway to Hell, said one. Literally from horizon to horizon you can see smoke and fires—one of the worst disasters I've ever seen. That's what we normally deal with; we just don't ever have 5 or 600 in a row to work on. We just have to be careful, make sure we have the right plan when we attack the well, and we'll take them one at a time, just like we did this well. Here now, where do you go from here? We'll go right down the road to the next one.

The Devastation of Oil Wells

In February 1991, after the failed invasion of Kuwait, the retreating Iraqi Army sabotaged more than 700 oil wells. The resulting fires stained the blue desert skies black, turning day into night with thick, smoke-saturated air appearing like streaks of ink across the planet, visible from space. An ecological and economic disaster, with a practically endless supply of fuel, the fires could have raged for 45 years without intervention. Conditions were worsening with every passing moment. An estimated 5 to 6 million barrels of oil were lost to the fires for every single day they raged, with a per barrel cost of around $18. The Kuwaiti government was hemorrhaging a million dollars every 13 to 16 minutes.

The Challenge of Firefighting

Putting out a single oil well fire is a challenge, but the situation in Kuwait would put firefighting experts to their limits. The teams would need to navigate unexploded ordnance littered in the war-torn deserts. Not all of the oil erupting from the ground was being burnt by the gigantic 90-meter tall flames. Lakes of toxic oil quickly began to form around the flames, which could catch light at any moment, making the firefighting operation even more dangerous. This was one of the most complex firefighting operations ever undertaken.

The Global Response

Cue it is estimated to have spent 25 billion dollars paying firefighters and oil and gas workers to stem the flow of their precious oil. These fires and the payday that was up for grabs ignited a race between expert firefighting teams from all over the world. The veteran Texas oil men gathered in this hotel said they would need hundreds of workmen, and it would take at least a year to put out the fires. The cost: a billion, and that's before any accounting is made of the environmental price tag.

The Hungarian Innovation

However, one team of 23 Hungarians arrived with a machine like no other—a custom-built firefighting vehicle, a tank retrofitted with two massive jet engines. An incredible machine that played a significant part in the massive firefighting operation.

Background of the Conflict

In 1988, Iraq emerged from an 8-year war with Iran bruised, battered, and economically crippled, unable to pay its debts. It campaigned for OPEC to increase the price of oil—a move that would help Iraq pay off its war debts. However, Iraq claimed Kuwait had done just the opposite, surpassing its production quotas, causing oil prices to drop. In August 1990, Iraq began its conquest of Kuwait.

The Extinguishing Process

Fighting fires in a desert comes with a logistical challenge: there's no water. First, we're going to need massive amounts of water. Once we get the water in, where we can cool the area and get in close to it, then we can start trying to remove the damaged well head or possibly even put the fires out. You could stay there all day long as long as you have the water. In the absence of water, you couldn't stay there for a second.

The Technological Advancement

One solution was to lower long steel tubes with a crane onto the well head, which allowed the flame to be raised off the ground and allowed teams to get close enough to remove the mounts and begin starving the flame of heat. Another method was to starve the fires of oxygen using explosives. Teams were stuffing empty oil drums with plastic explosives and slowly maneuvering them over the flames, where it would explode and consume so much oxygen in the surrounding air that the flames would be snuffed out.

The 'Big Wind' Machine

A team of 23 Hungarian firefighters showed up with an armored tank with two jet engines adapted to become the world's most powerful water cannons, nicknamed 'Big Wind.' They removed the turret from an old Soviet T-62 tank and replaced it with two jet engines from the M-21. The driver entered the tank from a small hatch nestled between the two massive jet engines. The already cramped space needed to be adapted to fit two tanks of compressed air to allow the driver to survive the toxic fumes surrounding the fires.

The Aftermath and Cleanup

With visibility inside the tank being basically non-existent and with two jet engines less than a meter away from each of their ears, communication with the driver was extremely limited. They were directed by the commander chief's joystick that would light up two simple green and red lights that would direct the driver where to point the tank. Above the driver and outside the tank, the engine operator sat on a platform controlling the thrust of the engines. Once given the all clear, the crew would position the tank just 8 meters away from the fire, protected by a transparent heat shield.

The Impact on Humanity and the Planet

The story of these firefighters is just one story of thousands that came as a result of the rule of Saddam Hussein. Saddam Hussein ruled Iraq for nearly a quarter of a century, and throughout that time, he initiated two enormous wars that resulted in the death of millions. The international coalition that formed to stop him was the biggest since the Second World War. The story of how this man changed the world around him is fascinating and is the subject of this episode of Real Life Loris Nebula exclusive series, Modern Conflicts.

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