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Red Adair, Global Firefighter

Red Adair put out fires for a living. Oh, not just any fires, but burning oil and gas wells, fires that could have been fueled for decades and were expected to take years to extinguish with the best methods available. He was called out to fires all over the world, including war zones, because of his company's experience and expertise.

Adair's company put out thousands of fires, but a few were particularly memorable. In late 1961, his crew was called to Algeria where a natural gas fire burned so hotly that the desert sand melted into glass. The fire had burned for six months before Adair arrived, and was nicknamed the Devil's Cigarette Lighter.

Red never met a fire he couldn't lick. He bombed many of them into submission with high explosives. It seems wildly counterintuitive, using dynamite to subdue an inferno, but the physics are quite simple: a properly shaped and sized explosion will momentarily suck all the oxygen from a given area, thus starving the flames long enough to get a cap on the well. (Of course, done wrong, it's also extremely dangerous.) Red didn't invent the idea -- it had been used since before he started wrestling wells -- but he perfected it, made it an intuitive art.

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The company had to dig their own wells for water in the Sahara, and construct reservoirs. Adair spent months preparing for the final explosion that extinguished the flames in May of 1962. Putting out the Devil's Cigarette Lighter brought Adair worldwide fame, but he was just getting started. Watch a video report of the Sahara fire.

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Paul Neal Adair was born in 1915 in Houston, Texas, one of eight children. He dropped out of high school to help support the family. Adair held various jobs including seven years of work in the oil fields before he went into the army, where he served with the 139th Bomb Disposal Squadron during World War II. The nickname "Red" was a natural because of his red hair, and later he took to wearing red clothing, driving a red car, and using the color for his business equipment and literature.

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After the war, Adair went to work for the MM Kinley Company. Founder Myron Kinley pioneered the technique of fighting oil well fires with dynamite, which deprived the fire of oxygen. In 1959, Adair founded his own company, Red Adair Company, Inc.

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Adair's life read like an adventure movie script. After the Devil's Cigarette Lighter fire brought him worldwide fame, Hollywood noticed and based a feature film on Adair's life. The 1968 film Hellfighters starred John Wayne as a globetrotting firefighter loosely based on Adair, who served as a consultant to the film along with his company colleagues. The movie received lousy reviews, but Adair and Wayne became lifelong friends.

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In 1972, Adair founded the Red Adair Service and Marine Company to develop and market new firefighting equipment to be used on well and other massive fires. He rigged bulldozers with heat-resistant shields and developed a semi-submersible vehicle for fighting offshore fires. By then the company had accomplished some milestones, such as being the first to ever cap an American well while it was still on fire and putting out underwater well fires. Pictured is the IXTOC I blowout, an underwater fire in the Gulf of Mexico the Red Adair Company extinguished in 1980.

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On July 6, 1988, the Piper Alpha Rig Disaster killed 167 men in the North Sea. It was the deadliest oil rig disaster ever. Adair's company was the first to board the burning platform. They extinguished the last of the flames three weeks after the blowout, while dealing with 70-foot waves and 80 mph winds.

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At the end of the Persian Gulf War in 1991, the retreating Iraqi forces set fire to the oil wells of Kuwait, around 700 fires total. Twenty-seven teams from sixteen countries fought the oil fires in Kuwait. The job of extinguishing those fires was estimated to take 3-5 years, but Adair, in his seventies at the time, put out the last of his company's 117 fires in November of 1991, just a few months after the operations began.

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Adair was 79 years old when he finally retired from firefighting in 1994 and sold Red Adair Company, but he still worked as a consultant with a new company named Adair Enterprises, Inc. He headed that company until his death at age 89 in 2004.

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History
A Very Brief History of Chamber Pots

Some of the oldest chamber pots found by archeologists have been discovered in ancient Greece, but portable toilets have come a long way since then. Whether referred to as "the Jordan" (possibly a reference to the river), "Oliver's Skull" (maybe a nod to Oliver Cromwell's perambulating cranium), or "the Looking Glass" (because doctors would examine urine for diagnosis), they were an essential fact of life in houses and on the road for centuries. In this video from the Wellcome Collection, Visitor Experience Assistant Rob Bidder discusses two 19th century chamber pots in the museum while offering a brief survey of the use of chamber pots in Britain (including why they were particularly useful in wartime).

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Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
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History
Tomb Raider: The Story of Saint Nicholas's Stolen Bones
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock

Throughout history, corpses have been bought and sold, studied, collected, stolen, and dissected. In Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses, Mental Floss editor Bess Lovejoy looked into the afterlife of numerous famous corpses, including Saint Nicholas, one of the many canonized bodies whose parts were highly prized by churches, thieves, and the faithful.

Don't tell the kids, but Santa Claus has been dead for more than sixteen hundred years. No, his body is not at the North Pole, and he's not buried with Mrs. Claus. In fact, his remains are thousands of miles away, on Italy's sunny Adriatic coast. And while Santa might be enjoying his Mediterranean vacation, he's probably not too happy about what happened to his remains. They were stolen in the eleventh century, and people have been fighting over them ever since.

Of course, the Santa Claus of folklore doesn't have a skeleton. But his inspiration, Saint Nicholas, does. That's about all we can say for sure about Nicholas: he was a bishop who lived and died in what is now Turkey in the first half of the fourth century. Legend tells us that he was born into a rich family and delighted in giving gifts. Once, he threw three bags of gold into the window of a poor family's house, saving the three daughters who lived there from a life of prostitution. Another time, he raised three children from the dead after a butcher carved them up and stored them in a vat of brine. He also protected sailors, who were said to cry out his name in rough seas, then watch the waves mysteriously smooth.

The sailors spread Nicholas's cult around the world. Within a century of his death, the bishop was worshipped as a saint, lending his name to hundreds of ports, islands, and inlets, and thousands of baby boys. He became one of the best-loved saints in all of Christendom, adopted by both the Eastern and Western traditions. Christmas probably owes something to his December 6 feast day, while Santa Claus’s red outfit may come from his red bishop’s robes. "Santa Claus" is derived from "Sinterklaas," which was how Dutch immigrants to New Amsterdam pronounced his name.

As one of the most popular saints in the Christian world, Nicholas had a particularly powerful corpse. The bodies of saints and martyrs had been important to Christianity since its beginning: the earliest churches were built on the tombs of saints. It was thought that the bodily bits of saints functioned like spiritual walkie-talkies: you could communicate with higher powers through them, and they, in turn, could manifest holy forces on Earth. They could heal you, protect you, and even perform miracles.

Sometimes, the miracles concerned the saints' own bodies. Their corpses would refuse to decay, exude an inexplicable ooze, or start to drip blood that mysteriously solidified and then reliquefied. So it was with Nicholas: at some point after his death, his bones began to secrete a liquid called manna or myrrh, which was said to smell like roses and possess potent healing powers.

The appearance of the manna was taken as a sign that Nicholas’s corpse was especially holy, and pilgrims began flocking by the thousands to his tomb in the port city of Myra (now called Demre). By the eleventh century, other cities started getting jealous. At the time, cities and churches often competed for relics, which brought power and prestige to their hometowns the way a successful sports team might today. Originally, the relics trade had been nourished by the catacombs in Rome, but when demand outstripped supply, merchants—and even monks—weren't above sneaking down into the crypts of churches to steal some holy bones. Such thefts weren't seen as a sin; the sanctity of the remains trumped any ethical concerns. The relics were also thought to have their own personalities—if they didn't want to be stolen, they wouldn't allow it. Like King Arthur's sword in the stone, they could only be removed by the right person.

That was how Myra lost Saint Nicholas. The culprits were a group of merchants and sailors from the town of Bari, located on the heel of Italy's boot. Like other relic thefts, this one came at a time of crisis for the town where the thieves lived, which in this case had recently been invaded by a horde of rapacious Normans. The conquerors wanted to compete with the Venetians, their trading rivals to the north, who were known for stealing the bones of Saint Mark (disguised in a basket of pork) from Alexandria in 827. And when the Normans heard that Myra had recently fallen to the Turks, leaving Nicholas’s tomb vulnerable, they decided to try stealing a saint for themselves.

According to an account written shortly after the theft by a Barian clerk, three ships sailed from Bari into Myra's harbor in the spring of 1087. Forty-seven well armed Barians disembarked and strode into the church of Saint Nicholas, where they asked to see the saint’s tomb. The monks, who weren't idiots, got suspicious and asked why they wanted to know. The Barians then dropped any pretense of politeness, tied the monks up, and smashed their way into Nicholas's sarcophagus. They found his skeleton submerged in its manna and smelled a heavenly perfume wafting up from the bones, which "licked at the venerable priests as if in insatiable embrace."

And so Nicholas of Myra became Nicholas of Bari. The relics made the town, and the men who stole them. The thieves became famous in the area, and for centuries their descendants received a percentage of the offerings given on the saint’s feast day. The townspeople built a new basilica to hold the remains, which drew thousands of pilgrims throughout the Middle Ages. Even today, Bari remains a major pilgrimage site in southern Italy, visited by both Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians. Every May an elaborate festival, the Feast of the Translation, celebrates the arrival of Nicholas’s relics. As one of the highlights, the rector of the basilica bends over Nicholas’s sarcophagus and draws off some of the manna in a crystal vial. The fluid is mixed with holy water and poured into decorated bottles sold in Bari's shops; it is thought to be a curative drink.

But Bari is not the only place that boasts of the bones of Saint Nicholas. If you ask the Venetians, they will say their own sailors visited Myra during the First Crusade and stole Nicholas’s remains, which have been in Venice ever since. For centuries, both Bari and Venice have claimed the saint's skeleton.

In the twentieth century, scientists waded into the dispute. During renovations to the basilica of Bari in 1953, church officials allowed University of Bari anatomy professor Luigi Martino to examine the remains— the first time the tomb had been opened in more than eight hundred years. Martino found the bones wet, fragile, and fragmented, with many of them missing. He concluded that they had belonged to a man who died in his seventies, although because Martino was given only a short time with the bones, he could say little more.

Four decades later, Martino and other scientists also studied the Venetian bones. They concluded that those relics and the ones in Bari had come from the same skeleton, and theorized that the Venetian sailors had stolen what was left in Myra after the Barians had done all their smashing.

As for Demre, all they have is an empty tomb. And they want their bones back. In 2009, the Turkish government said it was considering a formal request to Rome for the return of Nicholas's remains. Though the bones have little religious significance in a nation that’s 99 percent Muslim, there’s still a sense in Turkey that the centuries-old theft was a cultural violation. Its restitution would certainly be an economic benefit: according to local officials, tourists in Demre frequently complain about the barren tomb, and they weren't satisfied by the giant plastic sculpture of Santa Claus that once stood outside Nicholas’s church. Even though Santa has become an international cultural icon, his myth is still rooted in a set of bones far from home.

From REST IN PIECES: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses by Bess Lovejoy. Copyright © 2013 by Bess Lovejoy. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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