Red Adair had become world famous in 1991, having capped the oilwells that Saddam Hussein had deliberately torched while fleeing Kuwait. He had his crew had risked life and limb, hundreds of times. He was now enjoying his retirement, a very rich man. Until the phone had rung. His skills were needed again, and this time it was in America's heartland.
He was clinging to the rock wall at the bottom of the shaft, just above the gaping blackness of the deep. A searingly hot, hurricane-force blast of gases from below tried to pull him from the rock face and spit him out of the shaft. He was accompanied by an experienced mountaineer, who had made sure he was fastened securely in place with ropes secured by pins into the rock. All movement was extremely difficult in the heat-resistant spacesuits they were wearing, which supplied them with oxygen as well as keeping them from cooking.
He maneuvered the jackhammer into position, and began drilling into the rock. Making sparks in the presence of so much methane wasn't a concern. There was almost no oxygen in the mixture rushing up from below, let alone the 19 parts out of 20 that would be needed to cause an explosion. Any fire would be instantly extinguished. Fire was only a worry above the top of the shaft, where the gas mixed with oxygen.
Once the hole was drilled, a three foot-long pin was hammered into it, with a large hook on the end facing downwards. There were 40 more such pins to insert. The work was hot and exhausting, but it had to be done. He slipped more than once on the almost sheer rock face, and was saved only by the safety ropes.
A net had been hastily woven by the finest fishing net maker in the country, custom-made to the dimensions of the hole. From it hung 120 of the DARPA expanding foam canisters, primed and ready to be ignited by a radio command from above. The whole lot had to be lowered by helicopter into the hole, as it was too dangerous to operate a crane in the immediate vicinity of the hole. The problem was, the net with its underslung load had a tendency to bunch together into a ball as it was suspended. To counter this, someone had cleverly rigged it with a telescoping device that resembled a spider. It would unfurl its 'legs' once the net was in place, expanding it to its proper size to cover the hole.
A lot of extra weight had had to added as well, to stop it blowing back out of the hole. This put it right at the limit of the helicopter's lifting capacity. A twin-rotor heavy lifter, it was more used to lifting logs in the Pacific northwest than potentially explosive cargo over what amounted to a giant high-pressure air hose. The company's most experienced pilot was in charge, and was finding the combination of the very heavy cargo, on the end of a 3000 foot rope, in a strong upward airflow, very difficult to handle. However, the decision to put guide ropes on the net, that could be grabbed by people on the ground to help maneuver it, was a good one. Working together, they helped guide the massive load into and down the shaft, without it bumping the sides.
Once it was level with them, Red gave the go-ahead to expand it slowly. The motorized spider-legs did their work, and the net slowly expanded like a giant spider web until it covered the mouth of the hole. Its edges flapped and tipped in the gushing gas flow, which made it extremely difficult to hook it to the first pin in the shaft wall. However, they managed to do it eventually. One down, 39 to go.
Red radioed up that it had taken him a full 20 minutes to hook it to the first pin. Realizing instantly what that meant, the pilot replied "I only have two hours of fuel left on this thing." A sickening realization dawned on everybody involved. If the net couldn't be secured in time, the helicopter would have to drop the load in order to land. The precious cargo would disappear into the hole, never to be seen again. There were no second chances.
Red knew that if he could secure the net in at least four places, spaced equidistantly at its 'corners', it would buy them time to do the rest as the net would not then fall away. The problem was, he was fastened to the rock wall, and only able to work himself around the shaft one pin at a time. It would take too long to climb around the sides, even if the pins in between were skipped. He began to unfasten his safety ropes.
"What are you doing?" cried his French mountaineer companion. "You'll kill yourself"
"It's gotta be done" said Red, as he looked across at the other side of the shaft. He unfastened the last rope, and then jumped onto the net, as it flapped in the wind, poised between heaven and hell. He quickly scrambled across it to the opposite wall, and began the arduous task of hooking the edge of it to the hook there. It was almost impossible to drag the edge of it across without the support of the safety ropes to brace himself against, and the void below. He managed to get a foothold and a handhold, grit his teeth, and stretch the net as far as the hook. It wouldn't go, and fell back. With one more mighty tug, he pulled it and hooked it. Breathless with exhaustion, but exhilarated, he allowed himself to pause for only a moment before climbing a quarter of the way around the net, and hooking the third of the four points. The last one was comparatively easy.
"You can let it go" he radioed to the pilot.
"Good. I've only got 40 minutes of fuel left, and I've still gotta get you out of there yet" said the pilot. He detached the hook remotely, and flew away.
Inspired by Red, his companion detached his ropes too, and free-climbed his way around the hole. Initially his job was only to support Red and keep him as safe as a non-climber could be there, but every minute counted. He fastened the hooks that were mid-way between the ones already fastened, making a total of eight attachment points. By that time, much of the day had passed, and an electrical storm was rolling in from the west.
Major Samuels, in charge of the operation, knew that one stray lightning strike could be deadly in the presence of the flammable gas. He took decisive action.
"I want those men out of that hole now. We're gonna do this with only eight pins attached."
"What?" exclaimed the other team members, almost as one.
"That's right. You heard me. This is do or die time".
The helicopter was ordered back in, with a basket slung under it this time. It too had to be weighed down in order not to bob about in the updraft like a feather. Adair and the Frenchman climbed in and were soon high in the sky, very relieved to be out of the hole. They were set down at the command center, two miles away.
"Okay boys, it's now or never" said Samuels. "Arm"
"Check" said one of the DARPA techs.
As they watched the hole intently through binoculars, the shimmering geyser of gas suddenly darkened with rock dust and smoke, and then dissipated into a few wisps, blown about by the wind.
The relief in the room was palpable. Cheers, whoops, backslapping and high-fives all around. "We did it, boys!" yelled Samuels, as he burst open a bottle of champagne and began to pour glasses for everybody. "Disaster averted".
Now, at last, the work of building a permanent cap for the hole could begin.