Harry Baltzer, a Minnesota snowbird, carried the women, injured in an explosion on the boat, to safety seconds before another explosion left it engulfed in flames.
A retired Minneapolis police sergeant leaped onto a burning boat in a Florida harbor north of Fort Myers, picked up and moved one badly injured woman, and then another, onto other boats, then got off the distressed vessel seconds before it was rocked by the second of two explosions.
Just as Harry Baltzer finished moving the two women from the blazing boat last Friday in an Englewood, Fla., gated community, he could sense that time was running short.
"I put one foot on one bow, and I had my other foot on the other bow," said Baltzer, who turns 68 Friday.
Then the boat to which he was fleeing started backing up.
"I slipped and went into the water," Baltzer said. "I grabbed the side rail." As that boat pulled away, the one on fire blew up, he said. "It was about 20 seconds. It was close."
The boats involved were among 11 gathered in the Alameda Isles residential community's harbor for "a nice, sunny picnic," Baltzer said.
"I thought we rammed a boat or a boat rammed us," said Nancy O'Dea, 75, a Chicago-area retiree, who was with her husband, Brendan, on the boat of longtime friends and fellow Illinois retirees Alex and Eileen Gallacher. "It was one massive boom. We were all sent in the sky like rag dolls and landed back on the boat."
The next thing Nancy O'Dea knew, "Eileen was down on the deck, and I was on top of her. Everyone was screaming for us to get off, and neither of us could move."
Baltzer, on another boat in the neighborhood flotilla, said, "I could see the boat smoking and sparks flying. ... Two guys on the stern looked in shock, kind of staring. I assumed it would blow at any time.
"I'm yelling at them, 'Jump! Jump!' ... I see two gals in the center [of the boat]. One is piled on the other one, crumpled up; and I could hear them groaning."
He said he boarded the burning boat, and O'Dea told him, "'I've got a broken back, I've got a broken back'" as he grabbed her.
He responded: "Honey, we gotta go; it's gonna blow up."
After picking up O'Dea and moving her to one boat, he turned his attention to Eileen Gallacher. "I grab her on the left side, and she said, 'My shoulder's broke.' So, I tried to grab her on the right side, and I could see her wrist was broke."
A second boat pulled up, and he then moved Gallacher to safety on that boat.
With both couples now clear of further harm, Baltzer made his escape -- albeit a little wetter than he anticipated.
Nancy O'Dea has a crushed vertebra, but expects to be fully recovered within a few weeks. Eileen Gallacher is on the mend with her broken shoulder and wrist. The boat, while it didn't sink, was thoroughly charred.
Suspicion about what started the damage centers on when the boat's depth finder was turned on.
And while Baltzer counts himself as a snowbird, spending half of his time in Florida and the other half on Gull Lake near Brainerd with his wife, Kathy, he acknowledges that he can't shake a chronic case of Minnesota Modesty.
"We've got other cops and firemen who live here," said Baltzer, who left the Minneapolis police force in 1991 after 15 years and later served as executive director of the state's Gambling Control Board until 2000. "Any one of them would've done that. I never even gave it a second thought."
Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482