Woman faces double leg amputation after Chicago ‘Playpen’ boat accident

·6 min read

Lana Batochir had been floating on an inflatable raft, enjoying the warm weather at Chicago’s swimmer-filled, party-friendly “Playpen.” Then a 37-foot yacht suddenly reversed, sucking her under.

Now the 34-year-old mother of two, whose feet were severed by the boat’s propeller, is scheduled to have both of her legs amputated.

“It still feels like a nightmare,” Batochir wrote on a GoFundMe page set up to help defray the costs of the months of hospital stays and rehab she anticipates.

The brutal accident on Saturday took place at a no-wake boating hot spot south of Oak Street Beach. The area known as the Playpen is popular with boaters because of the dampening effect the break walls have on the waves, which means the Playpen’s waters tend to be calmer even if it’s choppy out on the lake, said Ald. Brian Hopkins, 2nd, whose ward covers the Playpen.

“Boats can tie up together and create large flotillas where you can actually hop from one boat to another,” Hopkins said. “It’s a social experience where boaters like to meet other boaters, and parties like to meet other partygoers. That’s really the attraction of the Playpen.”

But he said “unfortunate accidents and incidents” like what occurred Saturday happen “much more frequently than we would like to see” due to a combination of factors like excessive drinking, recreational drug use and too many people packed into a small area.

“Done responsibly, it can be fun, but again, there’s too many people who don’t have safe operating credentials,” he said. “Oftentimes, they’re operating rented watercraft where they’re not really familiar with how to operate it safely.”

The 37-foot yacht that struck Batochir, the La AquaVida, had been chartered with a licensed captain at the helm, said Jayette Bolinski, spokesperson for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, which is investigating the accident.

The captain engaged in evasive maneuvers after problems arose with the ship’s windlass, a part of the boat that helps operate the anchor, Bolinski said. When he reversed the yacht, it backed over the floating raft with Batochir. Another woman struck by the yacht suffered lacerations to her hands, authorities said.

A source familiar with the investigation said that the yacht driver is not suspected of operating while under the influence. But Hopkins said the driver of the boat is under investigation and “may very well lose his license.”

According to Lt. Tony Mendez, commanding officer with the Chicago Police marine unit, the Playpen is regulated by the U.S. Coast Guard, and monitored by the Coast Guard, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and the marine unit.

He said the spot is “pretty crowded” during the summer, especially on weekends, and it doesn’t currently have an official maximum capacity. But boating or operating while under the influence is regulated by the enforcement agencies, he said.

The marine unit has a physical presence at the Playpen, he said, and was the first responding unit to the accident Saturday.

“The Playpen is part of the Chicago waterways,” he said. “We cover all aspects of the lakefront, and for this particular incident, we were on the spot patrolling where we were supposed to, and we were at the right place at the right time to be able to help these women.”

Chicago police marine Officers Art Pachnik and Raul Echevarria boated over to the accident after hearing an emergency call on their radio. They saw one of the women hanging halfway onto a vessel and another at a ship’s stern, they said.

The officers applied tourniquets before piloting the women to Navy Pier, where paramedics took them to Northwestern Memorial Hospital.

“You want to say you’re ready, but when the time happens you just react. It was hectic,” Echevarria said.

The investigation into the accident is ongoing, and there have been no citations or arrests, Bolinski said. The Coast Guard has asked witnesses and any passengers aboard La AquaVida to come forward and share what they saw.

The investigation needs to be thorough, said Lt. Rachel Ault, the Coast Guard Marine Safety Unit Chicago’s chief of vessel inspections.

As soon as the accident happened, Coast Guard officers boarded and inspected safety equipment, Ault said. Investigators will begin interviewing witnesses Wednesday, she added.

“We can generate safety recommendations out of that that will ultimately make everything safer,” Ault said.

Officers routinely board boats for inspection to apply federal laws, according to enforcement chief Anthony Gallegos. They might check for required life jackets and fire extinguishers or make sure captains aren’t illegally intoxicated or unlicensed.

The number of boats the Coast Guard uses to monitor the waters changes, though Gallegos declined to give typical numbers.

“We are out there every day and multiple times a day,” he said.

The goal is always to make sure people come home safely, Gallegos added. That can be challenging at the Playpen, which often becomes crowded in the summertime.

“It can get hectic at times,” he said.

One important threat to safety is illegally chartered boats, Ault said. Some boat owners break the law by charging more than six passengers individually for a boat trip, even though they haven’t gotten required inspections, she said. When boats are illegally chartered, the disregard for the law often shows up elsewhere in other safety violations that put people in danger, she said.

Ault encouraged boat riders who want to stay safe to talk to the master of the boat they’re riding on and ask for credentials.

“Even talk to the master about what we do in case of an emergency,” she added.

Hopkins said Jet Ski injuries are probably the most common injuries in the Playpen, while drownings and injuries caused by boats colliding are also on the list. He said the fact that there have not been as many deaths as there could be under the Playpen’s circumstances is a “tribute” to the city’s police marine unit, which he said monitors the Playpen “very carefully.”

Hopkins said Coast Guard training and other boating education and marine safety is offered for people wanting to be out on the water, but it’s “up to the public to respond appropriately.”

“We do what we can, but there’s only so much hand-holding that can be done for the denizens of the Playpen,” he said. “Operating safely and responsibly is on them, and they need to do so, and they don’t always, and when they don’t, things like this happen.”

Batochir wrote on her fundraising page that she would have drowned if her husband hadn’t pulled her from the water.

“I felt myself drifting down like an object, I knew I would die,” she said.

She underwent emergency surgery after she was hit and is scheduled for below-the-knee amputations on both legs, she said.

“Anyone who knows me knows that I love to dance, love music, and enjoying life itself with family. My life has completely changed,” she said.

Batochir’s GoFundMe page had raised nearly $40,000 as of Tuesday evening.