Today he's home in Woodside, recuperating from serious injuries. A little more than a month ago, Silicon Valley billionaire Tom Siebel was in the Serengeti, where a charging elephant attacked him and a guide.
"It was all happening so fast. There was no place to hide, no place to run," the 56-year-old Siebel, founder of the Siebel Systems software company, told the Mercury News in an exclusive interview Wednesday.
The elephant plowed into the guide and then turned on Siebel, breaking several ribs, goring him in the left leg and crushing the right. Siebel said they were able to radio for help only after the animal lost interest and wandered away, but it was three hours before he received any medical treatment.
Siebel sold his business to Oracle four years ago and now divides his time between his Woodside home, an office in Palo Alto and a ranch in Montana, where he raises cattle and competes in team roping events. He said he was on a photo safari in Tanzania last month when the elephant attacked without warning.
Early on the morning of Aug. 1, Siebel said, he and a guide went to a watering hole, where they hoped to observe a variety of game that were known to gather in the quiet early morning hours. They were watching a group of elephants from 200 yards away — "keeping a respectful distance," Siebel said — when one turned and without warning began to charge.
"There was no apparent reason, nothing that should have made it feel threatened," Siebel said. "It was quiet, and then the quiet stopped," when the elephant began thundering toward the two men. As the massive animal closed the distance, Siebel said the guide fired a gun but missed. Siebel said he was trampled and gored in the leg, until he just "curled into as tight a ball as I could." The guide suffered broken ribs and other injuries.
After the animal left and the men called for help, rescuers came and eventually airlifted Siebel to Nairobi, where he received emergency care before flying back to California for more treatment. All told, he said, he spent 18 days in four hospitals before he was allowed to go home. Siebel has been using a wheelchair but has told friends he expects to make a full recovery, after reconstructive surgery and physical therapy. "I was very fortunate to have survived something you might not think was survivable," he said cheerfully Wednesday. "But I am home now, and with my family. It makes you glad to be home."
Siebel has not discussed the incident publicly before now. He said Wednesday that he was not eager for publicity about the experience but agreed to describe what happened after the Mercury News contacted him to confirm an account that was circulating in the community. A veteran software executive, Siebel has kept a relatively low profile in the business world while investing his assets through a holding company called First Virtual Group. He has made a bigger splash with his nonprofit, the Thomas and Stacey Siebel Foundation, and by helping to fund alternative energy research and an anti-methamphetamine campaign that has been adopted by several rural states. BusinessWeek magazine included him in a 2008 ranking of the 50 most generous philanthropists in the country.
Siebel said Wednesday that he doesn't know what became of the elephant that attacked him. He said authorities in Tanzania searched for it, but as far as he knows it was never found. While he's doing some work from home, he said, he's focused on his recovery. "My job is to get healthy and get over it," he said, "and I'm going to do my job."
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