May 1st, 1939, Saudi Arabia shipped its first tanker load of crude oil to join the ranks of oil exporting nations. Aside from the initial discovery of oil at Dammam #7, this was the most historic moment in the company’s history. Nine weeks later, seventy five years ago today, disaster struck and changed the company forever. As Dammam #12 was being completed an accident on the drilling floor ignited gas leaking from the well and the whole structure was engulfed in flames killing four oil men immediately and two who survived only to pass the next day. Within an hour the derrick melted away and toppled into the raging fire fueled by a geyser of oil and gas.
The night of July 8, 1939
The oil men quickly realized that not only the well itself but the entire Dammam field was at risk. Burning eight thousand barrels of oil a day, the well was lost but if the blowout continued the whole field might lose reservoir pressure and the oil would have to be pumped out at great expense. With no outside expertise or fire-fighting equipment available for at least a month the oil men, resourceful veterans of overseas oil camps from Venezuela to Borneo, decided to extinguish the fire themselves.
July 8, 1939 - Nestor Sander
At the time there was an eight-inch oil pipeline that went to Al-Khobar on the coast to fill barges bound for the BAPCO refinery in Bahrain. They flushed the pipe and reversed its flow to pump an inexhaustible flow of salt water to cool the flames. The complete story of the fire is described by Wallace Stegner, the master author of the American West, in his book Discovery: The Search for Arabian Oil.
Watching this video you can get an idea of the terrible conditions the oil men faced. It’s July in Dhahran, so the daytime temperature is already 120 degrees, and the conflagration makes it even hotter. You can see the men working the hoses as they approach the fire, and then the wind shifts to push them back with an invisible wall of unbearable heat. When the wind stops they surge forward again. Dozens of men are working the fire hose but notice the two men at the nozzle. Wearing no protective clothing except gloves, the American in a felt hat and the Saudi in a guttra, maybe soaked in water, lead the attack on the flames. They are both there voluntarily. Fighting together against a common enemy that equally threatens their livelihood. This may well be the defining moment in the early history of Aramco.
Dhahran - July 8, 1939
The Americans and the Saudis were so disparate in language, culture, religion and customs that the only chance they had of possibly working together was to set their differences to the side and co-operate. After five years in the kingdom the California oil company was making a huge impact on the eastern province. For the first time ever, thousands of Saudis had jobs that actually paid in silver riyals instead of room, board and some vague largesse from a landowner or tribal sheikh. Sure the Americans had strict work schedules, strange dress codes and spoke the worst Arabic, but they paid like clockwork. When #12 burst into a furious, howling hell fire, the Saudis quickly realized what a threat it was to their families and their growing society. And for more than a few of the men at the front of the hose, men just learning about the oil industry, it was maybe more than that – it was about the pride of being an oil man with a job to do.
Well #12 prior to the derrick's collapse - July 8, 1939
Ten days later, the screaming flames went silent. The Americans retreated to their bunk houses, the Arabs went home and Aramco would never be the same. Daniel Yergin, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Prize: The Epic quest for Oil, Money and Power once observed that the success of Aramco was only made possible by the quality of the people in those early days and their meeting of cultures. Seventy five years ago the two cultures were welded by adversity into a third culture, an Aramco culture that celebrates its Diamond Jubilee today.
To learn more about Aramco’s fascinating early history, Wallace Stegner’s epic work on the birth of Aramco, Discovery: The Search for Arabian Oil, is definitely worth reading.