An astral phenomenon visible for the first time in 50,000 years was cruising near the Big Dipper on February 1, and Patrick Siefe was headed for the vista point near Lake Cachuma. Its dark night sky was ideal for viewing the rare Green Comet. The spot lies along State Route 154, a road that snakes across the Santa Ynez Mountains, winding over the folds and around the curves of the road between Santa Barbara and the Santa Ynez Valley. The route crosses the highest arch bridge in California — Cold Spring Bridge — a single lane in each direction with no shoulders and hemmed in by tall chain-link fencing.
Siefe had almost cleared the bridge around 7:30 p.m., when red brake lights flashed ahead and an 18-wheeler loomed out of the dark in the opposite lane, blowing a dense cloud of smoke across the lanes, blinding the other drivers on the road. Seven cars crashed into each other that night.
“I never in my life have seen smoke that thick,” said Siefe, recalling that it carried a strange chemical smell. “I don’t understand why anyone would put so many people at risk on the 154 with a truck in that condition.”
Despite braking, Siefe smacked into the car in front of him, one of two sets of accidents on the smoked-out road. Though one car went off the road, no one was injured seriously. The Highway Patrol investigation never located the truck driver, but concluded the other drivers were not at fault. “The CHP blamed me zero percent. My insurance company blamed me 100 percent,” said Siefe. “Mad as heck,” he hired private investigator Michael Claytor to find the truck driver.
Claytor was a detective with the Santa Barbara Police Department before a serious illness caused him to retire after 30 years in law enforcement. “You can’t sit around and feel sorry for yourself,” he said. “I got a private investigator’s license and started a company. I’m not doing the big crime any longer, but I can still help people.” Claytor lost no time recruiting a friend who could enhance Siefe’s video for clues.
Daytime dashcam video Siefe received. | Courtesy
Siefe wasn’t standing still either. He canvassed online for dash-cam videos from that day and handed Claytor a video he’d received showing a red truck and a trailer beside the 154. Claytor described how he’d matched the lights in the two videos, spent a day fruitlessly asking ag vendors about the products advertised on the trailer, then started checking big-rig repair shops. At the very first one he visited, “The truck was sitting on the lot. Total and complete luck.” Claytor had the names of the driver and the owner of the truck.
At the Santa Barbara office of the CHP, Officer Michael Fabila said they’d concluded the investigation. While the truck driver might have been at fault — in terms of a civil case, not a criminal one — he was not involved in the accidents; his truck hadn’t hit anything. When told that Claytor had identified the truck and its driver, the CHP asked to be put in contact with him. However, the time had passed to do any toxicology tests because the driver had not been at the scene.
And there would have been no need for any such tests, said Matt Zancanella vehemently. Zancanella owns the Kenworth being driven that night. He refuted vigorously any thought that his driver, Michael Marshall, had been driving for too many hours — the truck is equipped with an e-log that alerts the driver when 11 hours have passed — or that Marshall knew of the blinding cloud coming out of the truck.
Zancanella explained, “That was the DEF,” or diesel exhaust fluid, which mixes urea and water to “clean the fuel” and reduce emissions. He said it went bad and started smoking. Zancanella is a former rodeo cowboy in South Dakota, whose company Pro Earth Animal Health makes livestock supplements. He said Marshall was delivering tubs of cattle protein for his Dam Trucking company.
“Mike had no idea there was smoke coming from his truck,” he said. Marshall told him he’d noticed it was smoking while he was crossing the bridge, but it took him about three miles to find somewhere he could stop and pull over. According to Zancanella, Marshall parked there until 11:30 the next morning, when a tow truck hauled him into Santa Barbara.
“If anything, it was an accident,” Zancanella stated. “If anything, the other guy was following too close and couldn’t stop in time.”
Which is just what the insurance companies are negotiating now.
Siefe, who’s been a computer consultant in Goleta for several decades, recalled his confusion after the accident from “having my bell rung” and had some ankle and knee issues. He spoke with gratitude of the fire, CHP, and ambulance crews who helped him, and of the tow-truck driver who tucked his business card into his shirt pocket that night.
As for viewing the comet, which was 26 million miles away on February 1, Siefe said, “The bad thing is, unless I live another 50,000 years, I’m not going to see the Green Comet.”