Bodega Bay scientist dies in six-vehicle Petaluma crash, three others injured

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A distinguished marine biologist from the UC Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory was killed in a Tuesday morning crash that injured three others and closed Lakeville Highway in Petaluma for more than four hours.

Susan Williams, 66, of Bodega Bay died in the chain reaction crash just before 7:15 a.m. during the busy morning commute on Lakeville Highway near South McDowell Boulevard Extension. The six-vehicle crash was caused when the 19-year-old driver of a Chevrolet Silverado crossed double yellow lines for an unknown reason and drove into oncoming traffic, investigators said.

The Silverado driver, who was not identified, and his 50-year-old passenger were rushed to a hospital with serious but non-life threatening injuries, according to police. The 22-year-old driver of a Honda Accord also hit in the crash was also hospitalized with injuries not considered life-threatening. Petaluma police did not provide names or conditions Tuesday.

Williams’ death was mourned across the globe Tuesday as news reached her students at UC Davis, fellow researchers at the Bodega Bay laboratory and associates in Indonesia where she traveled multiple times a year to teach and study coral reef and ocean health.

Tuesday morning, Williams was traveling from her home in Bodega Bay to Davis to teach, as she did several times a week, said Gary Cherr, director of the Bodega Marine Laboratory, which is affiliated with UC Davis.

“She was one of the most dedicated instructors,” Cherr said. “She had so much impact both locally and internationally.”

Crash investigators worked throughout the day to determine how the crash unfolded. First responders arrived to a chaotic crash scene spread across the roadway and into a nearby field. The velocity of the vehicles involved left them mangled and spread debris across a wide area.

The Silverado was heading west toward central Petaluma on Lakeville Highway when it crossed into two oncoming vehicles, colliding first with Williams’ Prius and then a Honda Accord, Sgt. Ron Klein said. Three other vehicles crashed as well.

“Cars were hitting and flying everywhere,” said Sonoma resident Suzana Weltken who was headed south to work when her Mercedes was struck.

Weltken said she saw the Silverado veer across the road and hit the mirror of a truck in front of her then hit the front of her SUV, which then struck a car in the adjoining lane, sending it spiraling across the road and into a field.

“It was definitely nothing anybody could do once he veered into traffic. The luckiest people were the kids in the truck ahead of me,” she said. “Their vehicle was barely damaged.”

Petaluma firefighters and three ambulance crews responded, finding multiple people needing medical aid.

“There was a pickup truck in the middle of the road, flipped over, all smashed up. Two, three cars smashed up. One unrecognizable, which was a fatality. One was off the roadway,” said Petaluma fire Battalion Chief Jeff Holden.

A blue sedan ended up in a field and was so damaged firefighters helped the driver out through the windshield, Holden said. That man appeared to have a major head injury and was taken to Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, Klein said.

Police shut down the roadway to help the injured and investigate the crash, and it reopened about 11:30 a.m.

Weltken believed that after hitting her, the pickup crashed head-on with Williams’ Prius.

Her body remained inside the wreckage as police investigated. Firefighters covered her car with a tarp.

Several people stopped at the scene.

John Bearce of American Canyon had just pulled off of the highway into a business when the crash happened. “It was loud. I looked over to my left and there was stuff flying everywhere.”

A professional truck driver, Bearce was shaken by the scene.

“This is the first one I’ve seen where there was a fatality,” he said.

Staff Writer Julie Johnson contributed reporting. You can reach Staff Writer Randi Rossmann at 707‑521-5412 or On Twitter@rossmannreport.

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