Billy Jack McDaniel knew the risks of work on drilling rigs. Injuries and death in the oil field are common, mostly due to human error. But when a pressure seal on his rig failed, which allowed natural gas to escape, he came face-to-face with eternity in a horrific explosion and fire.
Billy Jack McDaniel
“It didn’t take much to ignite,” recalls McDaniel, who found himself 150 feet high on a maintenance platform when the rig exploded. “I watched the fire. It came and got me. There was nowhere to go, nowhere to run.”
His body ignited like a marshmallow too-close to an open flame. But this was no Boy Scout campfire. McDaniel found himself seared by 2,000-degree temperatures. Usually, people’s eyes melt at 1,200 degrees.
“The pain was intense, but there was no escaping it,” he says. “It was constant, like hell.”
As he watched his clothes quickly burn away, his skin bubble, and a sensitive body part catch fire “like a candle,” he panicked. “I wanted to fall and die when the fire went out. I welcomed death.”
From McDaniel’s training as a volunteer firefighter, he knew what awaited such a severe burn. He knew he would stop breathing at any moment. He realized he was at death’s doorstep. McDaniel contemplated throwing himself off the platform in a suicide dive.
As soon as the fire went out, driller Billy Humble clambered up a metal ladder to the platform, shooting past multiple rungs at a time to reach his friend and co-worker.
When McDaniel saw him, he was able to moan, “Promise me you’ll take of my wife and child.”
Billy Humble nodded and said, “Yes, I will.”
McDaniel was surprised when Humble suggested they pray, because Humble was not a church-going man.
A basket was raised up to the platform, and McDaniel was able to crawl into it by himself. “Nobody could touch me,” he notes. “If they tried to touch me, skin and meat would have pulled off.”
Most of his skin was burned off. Bone was exposed on his fingers, arms, chin and jaw.
When the basket reached the ground, onlookers were stunned when McDaniel raised himself up and walked out. “My body was pouring fluid so I was thirsty. I started to go to the drilling house to get a drink of water.”
“Stop! Lay down!” someone shouted. He sat down in the dirt, and then he was placed on a gurney made from chicken wire.
When the ambulance arrived, people were again shocked when McDaniel stood up, stepped over to the vehicle, and laid himself down inside.
“I need you to call a few people,” he told the nurse. He finally passed out when the ambulance hit a speed bump at the entry to the hospital.
After the explosion, rig manager Bob Quick went to the McDaniel home to inform Aleta, Billy Jack’s wife. “You think about that knock on the door or call in the middle of the night,” Aleta says. “But God had been preparing me for that exact moment for two years.”