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Kuwait City

All the clichés have been used to describe the burning oil wells of Kuwait: the lower circle of hell, Dante's Inferno, the end of the world. But none of the rhetoric prepares you for the actual sight--it is absolutely thrilling! Intellectually, I know that the massive destruction wrought is a horrible crime; but deep inside, the pyromaniac's heart did cartwheels of excitement. We drove to within a hundred yards of the nearest flaring well, and from that site I counted over fifty more fires visible in the distance. Some shot a couple of hundred feet skyward in flaming fountains. Others, like the one nearest us, billowed and puffed with great balls of orange flame. There were pools of ground fire and thick black columns of smoke, and even one gusher of oil that had not ignited. All of these torches were capped by dark, ugly, greasy black clouds that rose and blended together to form a solid black blanket overhead to blot out the sun. We arrived at ten a.m. and the only light available was from the well fires.

Oil Well Fire in Kuwait
Photo by Jonas Jordan, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
We were prepared for the worst, in old clothes and breathing masks, but the prevailing wind was strong enough to carry the smoke away from the road and deep into the oil field. While Jane shot video of the inferno, I stood with my microphone to record the rumble of the fires--and stared at these incredible flames until they were burned into my retinas.

While the engineers got busy setting up the portable "flyaway" satellite dish, Jane and I left with reporter Tom Mintier to interview oil field workers who had survived the occupation. The oil company engineer was a true Kuwaiti patriot, to hear him tell it. Right under the Iraqis' noses, he and his employees kept tabs on damage to the oil field, tracked enemy troop movements, and relayed information for allied air strikes. And certainly the air strikes came. There were bombed buildings, craters, and air raid bunkers throughout the complex. We were warned to stay on the pavement at all times--five workers had been killed the day before by unexploded (until they found them) cluster bombs.

As our host Ali told us of their resistance, our reporter lapped it up, but something about it didn't ring true. The computers in their office survived, he explained, because he convinced the soldiers they were playing harmless video games. Yet he said these same curious soldiers never looked out the window into the back yard to see his garden, his pen with sheep, chickens and goats, and his bomb shelter with electricity and satellite TV. He told us he managed to hold onto an entire firefighting brigade by convincing the Iraqis the equipment would be needed in the oil fields. But if the Iraqis came to blow up the oil wells, why would they need fire trucks to put the fires out?

I suspect the survival of his operation may have involved somewhat more collaboration than he would like to portray. The Iraqis came for that oil in the first place. And he is foremost an oil field engineer, so he was needed to keep the field in order. I do not question his loyalty or ethics during the occupation, which was clearly a difficult time. I only question the accuracy of his explanations. I finally asked him the question no one else would: how many of the hundreds of oil well fires were started by Allied bombing? He paused, then admitted that some were the inadvertent effects of attacks on troop dispositions around the complex. But he accepted this necessary sacrifice as part of the liberation. But this fact was never reported, of course. And the irony is that, in spite of all his efforts to preserve his oil production capacity, one way or another it was utterly devastated.

We did three live reports from the infernal scene, each working quite well despite the usual last-minute technical difficulties. It was a valuable experience, working with the live flyaway dish in a remote and inhospitable location. The satellite equipment fits into cases on the back of a truck, the satellite phone in one 50-pound trunk of its own. Two engineers can set it all up or break it down in half an hour if they hustle. It doesn't always work perfectly, but when it does it's a modern marvel. All it takes is a little electricity, in this case a 5000-watt generator. Through this state-of-the-art arrangement we were able to report all day live from the scene, with a crew of six. At dark we wrapped it up and headed home, to a hotel with no running water, hot or cold.

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© 2011 Chuck Afflerbach for The Hick Town Times