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For 50 years, 'The Gates Of Hell' crater has burned. Now officials want to put it out

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Hell hasn't frozen over. But it might be extinguished. A crater in Turkmenistan has been on fire for roughly 50 years. The country's president recently announced plans to put out the flaming attraction, which measures about 230 feet wide and at least 100 feet deep.

George Kourounis has been to that crater, which is referred to as the Gates of Hell. He's a photographer and explorer in residence for the Royal Canadian Geographical Society and joins us from the rather safer climes of Toronto.

Mr. Kourounis, thank you for being with us.

GEORGE KOUROUNIS: Thank you so much - my pleasure.

SIMON: What are the Gates of Hell like?

KOUROUNIS: It is like being on another planet. Imagine what looks like a volcano in the desert, but instead of churning lava, it is thousands of fires of this burning methane gas that's been lit for five decades. And I was leading an expedition to go there and study the crater, measure it and take soil samples from the bottom to see if there's any type of bacterial life living down there. So that could give us clues where we might want to look for alien life on other planets. So yeah, it was extreme, to say the least.

SIMON: And what did you discover about the origins of life on other planets (laughter)...

KOUROUNIS: Well...

SIMON: ...In the Gates of Hell?

KOUROUNIS: ...Interestingly, we found several types of bacteria - very odd, unusual extremophile bacteria - living in this hot, methane-rich environment. I measured a ground temperature at one point of 400 Celsius, which is over 700 Fahrenheit...

SIMON: Oh, my word.

KOUROUNIS: ...So pizza-oven hot.

SIMON: And you're right there.

KOUROUNIS: Right there.

SIMON: You're in this.

KOUROUNIS: Yes, absolutely. These bacteria were not in the DNA database. And some of them, we believe, were actually consuming the methane gas - so a very unusual life, living in a place where it is completely inhospitable to us.

SIMON: I've got to interject. How could you still be talking to us? Why didn't you burn up?

KOUROUNIS: (Laughter) Well, a lot of planning, a lot of preparation, a lot of various custom, specialized equipment - I was wearing an aluminized, head-to-toe, heat-protective suit - the kind that you would wear if you work in a steel mill or a foundry. I had fire-resistant ropes that we stretched across the entire span of the crater. My climbing harness was made out of Kevlar so that it wouldn't melt. I had self-contained air. And I was able to go out on pulleys and then rappel down. And after two years of planning and preparation, I had a total of 17 minutes to do all of the work that I had to do down at the bottom.

SIMON: Oh, mercy. Do we know why that crater's there?

KOUROUNIS: Well, there's some controversy about that. It was definitely a natural gas drilling operation that went awry that collapsed into a sinkhole. But there are conflicting stories as to when it happened. A lot of people say it happened in 1971. But when I was in Turkmenistan, I spoke to some local geologists, and they were very adamant that it happened in the 1960s and didn't catch on fire until the 1980s. But when you visit it, it is equal parts terrifying and beautiful.

SIMON: Well, tell us about the beautiful part.

KOUROUNIS: At night, the crater lights up the entire sky. It's 230 feet across - the best fire pit you could possibly imagine.

SIMON: (Laughter).

KOUROUNIS: And the light attracts moths - as, of course, moths to a flame.

SIMON: Yeah.

KOUROUNIS: And birds will fly over above the crater, swoop down below the crater rim to hunt these moths. It's just this - such a bizarre place.

SIMON: Wow. President of Turkmenistan wants to extinguish it. How do you feel about that, speaking, you know, as the guy who's been there?

KOUROUNIS: I understand why they might want to extinguish this fire. They want to access the natural gas reserves that are underneath. It's a bit of an embarrassment to the government. But they've made this declaration a number of times in the past. So I'm sort of waiting with bated breath to see if the president actually goes through with it this time.

SIMON: You sound like you like this place.

KOUROUNIS: Twelve people have stood on the surface of the moon, but only one person has been to the Gates of Hell. And I was very fortunate to be able to go there. And I even have the Guinness World Record certificate above my desk to help commemorate that. So I get a kick out of that every time I see it.

SIMON: What an honor it is to have you on our show, then - George Kourounis, explorer and photographer and the first person, at least so far - the only one to reach the bottom of the Gates of Hell.

Thanks so much for being with us.

KOUROUNIS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF GLASS ANIMALS' "HEAT WAVES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.