When Red Adair came to the rescue after Great Yarmouth tragedy

PUBLISHED: 07:01 18 November 2018 | UPDATED: 08:59 18 November 2018

Rig and well blow-out and fire expert Paul

Rig and well blow-out and fire expert Paul "Red" Adair who flew to Yarmouth to tackle the offshore problem


A kids’ game? Well, this was anything but.

The stand-by vessel Hector Gannet, overturned on to her side, with survivors awaiting rescue.The stand-by vessel Hector Gannet, overturned on to her side, with survivors awaiting rescue.

However, the “three marbles” trick proved to be the solution to a North Sea offshore crisis in which three men died.

The drama happened off Great Yarmouth in November, 1968 – exactly a half-century ago.

Despite the passage of those 50 years, nobody involved will ever forget it.

On reflection, decades later, my journalism colleagues and I were unanimous that it was the most harrowing experience we had ever experienced.

The Hewett A rig.The Hewett A rig.

It all began with a natural gas blow-out on the Hewett A rig. But worse was to follow.

A stand-by ship, the Hector Gannet, arriving as quickly as possible in gale-force winds to evacuate personnel scrambling down ropes, collided with part of a Hewett A leg and capsized after sustaining a gaping hole.

Three of the Hector Gannet’s crew perished. But miraculously, she stayed afloat, albeit on her side, long enough for the Lowestoft trawler Boston Hornet - arriving at full speed - to find 16 survivors plus a body from the Hector Gannet, perched precariously on her side.

Despite the big swell and strong winds, she managed to rescue them, plus others from six life-rafts, and also transferred the body.

A helicopter hovers over the Lowestoft trawler Boston Hornet which rescued survivors.A helicopter hovers over the Lowestoft trawler Boston Hornet which rescued survivors.

Helicopters from Bristow’s base in on Caister Road in Yarmouth, and from RAF Coltishall, ferried survivors and bodies to Norfolk.

All involved in the dramatic rescue earned the praise and gratitude they received.

From a press viewpoint, there were difficulties, especially for reporters with imminent deadlines for editions of evening and morning newspapers, exacerbated by those survivors returning to Yarmouth being reluctantly shepherded away from us to unknown destinations so we could not interview them.

But as he passed, one survivor tossed a spool of film to us.

It captured the Hector Gannet’s plight and the survivors awaiting rescue. We never knew his identity so his news picture of a lifetime went unrewarded.

We journalists had long-since sent our reports and photographs to our newspapers, but we did not locate the Hector Gannet survivors until that evening when photographer Les Gould and I tracked them down, drained but comfortable at the Furzedown Hotel on North Drive.

They were happy to relate their experiences, and to be photographed.

Although the high drama was over, a major problem remained: gas was still belching from the Hewett A despite efforts to stifle it.

Alarmingly, it was an insoluble situation beyond the professional capabilities even of the most experienced offshore personnel in the North Sea fields.

So it was decided to ask an expert with an international reputation for tackling these extreme dilemmas: the trouble-shooting Texan, Paul “Red” Adair.

Immediately he left his Texas home to jet to Yarmouth, then heading out to the Hewett A to study the crisis first-hand, well aware of the volatility of the situation and the necessity of swiftly to turn off the gas, as it were.

So he thought long and hard about possible solutions... and came up with one.

An affable man comfortable with talking to the press, he coined the phrase “my three marbles trick” - wording tailor-made for headline writers.

The noise made by escaping gas forcing its way through three half-inch holes in the drilling bit was like “a whistling kettle”, said Red.

He force-pumped three rubber-coated nylon balls, fractionally bigger than the holes themselves into the side of the bore. The gas forced them upwards to seal the holes and stop the gush. Success!

During his brief time here, Red Adair stayed at the Star Hotel on Hall Quay in Yarmouth - conveniently only a few strides from the Mercury office. But immediately his mission was accomplished, he jetted back to Texas to await his next assignment....

But he was always prepared, with his bag ready-packed - and probably with a few of his miracle “marbles” in his tool-kit.

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