Some people freeze in an emergency situation, and some plunge right in without a second thought. Shavarsh Karapetyan, a finswimming legend of the Soviet Union, was among the latter. Without his bravery, at least 20 people would have suffered horrible accidental deaths.
The early life of Shavarsh Karapetyan
Karapetyan was born in Armenia in 1953. If you’re into history, you’re probably aware that Armenia was a part of the Soviet Union back then, gaining independence in 1991. After school, Karapetyan went to a technical school for auto-mechanics. He was also an avid swimmer, making a name for himself on a competitive level but suffering from weaknesses in his technique that would hamper his career. As a result, he switched to the non-Olympic sport of finswimming and excelled. In 1972, he won two gold medals in the European championships in Moscow. Several years later, he had won the world championships 17 times and broken 10 world records. Karapetyan’s swimming earned him the title of Merited Master of Sports of the USSR, and he also served in the Soviet Air Defence Forces from 1975 to 1976.
Rescue at Yerevan Lake
On the 16th of September 1976, Karapetyan, his brother (another finswimmer), and their coach were out for a jog by Yerevan Lake in Armenia’s capital. That was when a trolleybus swerved out of control and went off the side of the road, plunging 92 people into the frigid, murky water. Unable to break the glass, they were trapped and quickly sinking. Karapetyan went in after them, tasking his brother and coach with helping the people once he’d freed them from the wreckage.
Karapetyan first had to find a way in, opting to grab the roof of the bus and then kick out the back window. He succeeded in this, though sliced his legs in the process. In Karapetyan’s words, “I was hurt by the glass, but I did not think about it — I understood that there was little time.” He got right to work with a way in and out, swimming inside to rescue the panicking passengers 30 times.
Each plunge took him around 25 seconds. Bleeding out and exhausted, the rescuers on the shore told him to stop, but he wouldn’t, coming close to drowning on several occasions. In total, he managed to pull 46 people from the wreckage. Only 20 of them survived, though. The rest of the original 92 drowned in horror aboard the bus. Karapetyan was so exhausted during one of his rescue attempts that he freed a seat cushion instead of a human being.
After the Rescue
When it was over, Karapetyan spent 45 days in the hospital. He’d lost a lot of blood and been exposed to the cold water for a long time. Adding the glass shards in his legs to the mix, Karapetyan suffered from pneumonia and blood poisoning for a time. The doctors were shocked that the infection didn’t kill him. The USSR went on to award Karapetyan the Order of the Badge of Honor, but tragically his finswimming career was done. Being underwater now made him nauseous to a point where he couldn’t bear it. Reflecting on why he did what he did, Karapetyan said, “There was no other choice. I knew that it wouldn’t be right if the world’s fastest underwater swimmer was there and didn’t even try to help. Nature and humanity would have judged me. God probably would have judged me.”
And into the fire
In 1985, fate presented Karapetyan with yet another opportunity to act rather than just stand aside. Nearby when Yerevan’s Sports and Concert Complex went up in flames, he didn’t hesitate to help extinguish the fire and carry people to safety. Once more he paid the price, hospitalised with major burns for two weeks. “Anyone can find himself in a place where somebody needs help, and more than once, too,” he said. “The main thing is to remember what makes you human.”
Later in life, Karapetyan opened a highly successful shoe-repair ship in Moscow, grew various businesses from there. He also established the Shavarsh Karapetyan Foundation, which organises competitions for swimmers. In the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Karapetyan carried the Olympic torch into the Kremlin. This heroic Armenian man is still alive today.