Miracle at ONGC’s Oil Well Kadi K-53: The Untold Story of India’s Worst Onshore Oil Disaster

In December 1985, ONGC's Oil Well Kadi (K-53) caught fire near habitation and the Delhi-Ahmedabad railway line. A young woman vowed to perform a pooja at the fire site and not eat food until it was extinguished. Despite the Soviet fire experts' disbelief, the woman's belief in the power of prayer and spirituality in the East remained unshaken. The taming of the untamable Kadi oil well fire remains a mystical mystery, despite the efforts of the ONGC, Army, locals, and Russian experts.

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Col NN Bhatia (Retd)
Col NN Bhatia (Retd)
Col NN Bhatia (Retd), besides being a combat military veteran is perhaps the only freelance consultant in Industrial Security. He has audited large numbers of core strategic industries in both private and public sectors such as Aeronautics, Airports, Banks, Defence, DRDOs, Mints, Nuclear Energy, Oil, Power, Ports, Prasar Bharti (AIR & Doordarshan Kendras) Railways, Refineries, Space, Ship Building, Telecom & various vital Research Centres & Laboratories and conducted numerous Industrial Security & Disaster Management Training Programs, Seminars, Workshops & Exhibitions & interacted with numerous Ministries, Departments & NGOs and undertaken Industrial Security Audits, Reviews, Training & Advice in Disaster Management & handling of IEDs & Explosives. He has vast experience in the management of the Human Resources, Training & Development, Liaison, Fire Fighting, Logistics, Equipment & Material Management, Strategic Decision-Making Process, clearance of Maps & Aerial Photography (GIS), Explosives handling, Industrial Security & Disaster Management. He is physically, mentally and attitudinally sound having good communication skills to undertake Industrial Security Consultancy, IED handling, Coordination & Liaison Assignments to add to the productivity of the Organisation. He can also organise discreet customised intelligence gathering & surveillance operations on a turnkey basis for his clients. He is a prolific writer written numerous articles on industrial security, national and geostrategic security issues and 5 books- KUMAONI Nostalgia, Industrial and Infrastructure Security in 2 volumes, Soldier Mountaineer (biography of international mountaineer Col Narender Kumar 'Bull' and Reminiscing Battle of Rezang La. *Views are personal.

In December 1985, I was commanding my Battalion 2 KUMAON (Berar) in Gandhinagar (Gujarat).  On December 15, 1985, while I was returning from the evening games, I got a telephonic message from the Brigade Headquarters that ONGC’s Oil well Kadi (K-53), being sunk, was on fire and that the KUMAONIS were put on high alert to move on short notice to help to combat the fire.  For the next two days, while we were on short notice, I drove down to Kadi, about 40 km away, for reconnaissance to gain first-hand information.

Kadi is a small town on the way to Mehasana. K-53 well was being sunk close to habitation and the main Delhi-Ahmedabad railway line.  The trapped gas in the well sunk up to 1974 meters depth, suddenly caught fire due to sparking, and the solid steel rig weighing over 250 tons melted like a wax candle in no time.  It appeared as if an area of two football grounds size was on fire and blaze, rising twice the height of Qutab Minar. No Control Room was established, but the ONGC top brass at the site described the blaze as the “Worst onshore mishap.” I found a huge crowd of curious onlookers hindering ONGC’s efforts to combat the fire. There was also a large contingent from the media, but there were no organized media briefings.

ONGC’s Plan

To extinguish and unravel the mystery of the fire, the ONGC had planned to dig a relief well 300 meters West of K-53 to reduce pressure in K-53 and convert it into a substitute well to monitor the geological behavior of the structure that suddenly bucked on December 15, 1985, setting in motion big onshore oil well fire containment plan. The planned relief well would draw Oil and gas away from K-53, thus facilitating combating the fire. It was hoped that once localized trapped Oil and gas were burnt, the fire would die on its own. At the same time, it was equally feared that the oil and gas reservoir under the geological sub-structure could be sucked in. The fire would remain ablaze indefinitely, ranging from a few to 90 days until the underground trapped reservoir was exhausted. However, due to intense heat, the proximity of habitation and the Delhi-Ahmedabad railway line, and time-consuming effort, digging the relief well was shelved. Extensive use of water cannons was also ineffective as sprayed water vapors simply evaporated in the intense heat.

The Army’s Deployment

Besides seeking help from the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation, the India Petrochemicals in Baroda, and local police, the ONGC had, meanwhile, requisitioned six fire experts from Baku Oil fields from the erstwhile Soviet Union. The ONGC Chief, Col S P Wahi, had also summoned Raymond de Smedh, Executive Vice President of Sedco Forex- Neptune, a multinational oil company who, too, was stonewalled by the blazing inferno.  After trying all possible means, in an unprecedented move, the flabbergasted ONGC staff sought the help of the Army to use its firepower. On December 18, 1985, I was ordered to deploy half of my battalion with two RCL guns and small arms to help combat the fire. The local police and the Home Guards on duty were placed under my command, and the first action I took was to cordon 300 meters around the burning well and push away curious onlookers hindering the fire containment plan.

Lt Gen R S Dayal, Maj Gen Afsir Karim & Col Bhatia  (extreme right) deliberating with ONGC officials on combating the fire.
Lt Gen R S Dayal, Maj Gen Afsir Karim & Col Bhatia  (extreme right) deliberating with ONGC officials on combating the fire. Image: Special Arrangement/ Frontier India

Once I landed with my troops at the site, I was directed by the then Lt Gen R S Dayal, General Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Southern Command, and Maj General Afsir Karim, General Officer Commanding of Ahmedabad based Infantry Division, that Kadi and adjoining villages should be vacated and area cordoned off as Baku fire experts had suggested using an explosive to create shock waves so that underground oil and gas channels (2) to well caved in to starve the fire of oxygen, gas, and crude supply. I was directed to place two 106 mm Recoilless Guns (RCL guns) to blast the mouth of the well under fire.  Since the 106 mm RCL Gun fires a flat trajectory, high velocity, and horizontal anti-tank projectiles that can destroy any known military tank in the world, I was apprehensive about the success of this mission. However, we fired several projectiles but to no avail. Meanwhile, the top brass of the Army and the ONGC, along with Baku fire-fighting experts, decided to tame the blaze with tank fire and three Vijayanta tanks from Ahmedabad Division to shell the well with their 105 mm high velocity, high explosive squash head projectiles were positioned. I had my doubts about this mission’s success, too, as what could not be achieved by firing 106 mm RCL high explosive projectiles was difficult to achieve with a similar weapon system of the tanks as 106 mm RCL, and tanks fire to destroy enemy armor and not to tame such devastating fires. The successful caving in of the blazing mouth of the well was only possible if the explosive was dropped and detonated vertically. The possibility of lowering explosives through a helicopter was a viable option, but high-rising flames, wind velocity, and fear of collateral damage to Kadi village and railway track negated this option.

On December 25, 1985, while the world celebrated Christmas, we were combating the Kadi Oil fire.  It was no wonder that even after getting help from the Soviet oil fire experts from Baku, Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation, India Petrochemicals from Baroda, and the Army, the well did not just burn but from its inward threw up along large quantities of gas and crude. What did not ignite at the wellhead spread fast in the adjoining areas and burnt as an untenable inferno! The ONGC, in its continuing efforts to control the fire, brought huge water tanks to jet out water, urea, potassium, aqueous foam, and film-forming foam that simply evaporated in the intense heat.

While I was ordered to strengthen the cordon to avoid loss of life, the 35000 residents of Kadi were told to remain indoors.  It was planned to blast the mouth of the well with all three tanks firing at tandem rapidly shaped changes on ‘D-Day’, December 30, 1985.

T-59 Tanks from the Army ready to blast the burning oil well. Image: Special Arrangement/ Frontier India
T-59 Tanks from the Army ready to blast the burning oil well. Image: Special Arrangement/ Frontier India

The Unresolved Mystery and the Power of the Prayers

On the evening of December 29, 1985, while I was planning to go to Ahmedabad Railway Station to see off my 11 year old son to board the train for Delhi, I saw a sari clad, ordinary looking, unassuming young lady carrying coconut, vermilion, some flowers, and incense sticks in a steel thali being stopped and pushed by the policemen of the cordon. In this process, she fell down, dropping her thali and its contents on the ground.  I quickly rushed to the incident site and directed cordoning constables that without ill-treating anyone, especially the ladies, they should man the access control firmly. I also learned that the lady wanted to perform pooja at the fire site and vowed not to take any food until the fire was extinguished. The curious ever Vodka gulping inebriated Russian experts standing close by enquired through the interpreter about the commotion and were told by the interpreter about the lady’s vow and intentions. They not only had hearty laughter but also advised her not to undertake such a stupid decision of fasting, as she would die of starvation. They also said that fires like Kadi-53 could last anything from 30 to 90 days or more, and she was sure to die of starvation.

On my instructions, some policemen helped the lady gather her thali and its contents. I let her perform the pooja from a distance and left for Ahmedabad Railway station to see off my son.

Around midnight, I was on my way to the Kadi fire site and was amazed as the fireball visible from miles away was missing.  For a moment, I thought my driver had lost the way. I reached the site well past midnight and was pleasantly surprised to see that the fire had died down on its own and the Soviet fire experts, as usual, were gulping Vodka down their throats. I asked them through the interpreter what had happened, and they, in exasperation, threw their arms in the air in sheer disbelief.  I reminded them about that lady’s desire to perform pooja and the vow she had undertaken to fast until the fire was extinguished and said, “You will perhaps not understand that beyond men and machines, there is unknown ‘Super Divine Power’ and the unshaken belief of the lady in the power of the prayer, penance, and spirituality of the East that controls the universe and disasters like the Kadi fire that would always remain a myth for non-believers like you.”

In the dying ambers of the K-53 fire, men, machines, monstrous tanks, and twisted and mangled over 250 tons steel rig looked too small and insignificant. But the power of the oriental spirituality was beyond the comprehension of Baku’s non-believers. Taming of the untamable kadi oil well fire will always remain a mystical mystery, much to the relief of the ONGC, the Army, the locals, and the Vodka sipping Russian experts, who died on their own and the ‘D-Day’ for the tanks to fire on December 30, 1985, never came.


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