The Millstone Times April 2022

A True Hero Savarash Karapetyan By Pam Teel

Heroes earn their title. Despite his training for the Olympics, Shavarsh Karapetyan made a split-second decision, whether to jump in the cold frigid water and try to save lives, or avoid being injured himself, thus ruining his chance for competing in the Olympics. His selfless decision ended up saving the lives of many people who would have surely drowned. Shavarsh Karapetyan is an Armenian athlete who, from 1972 to 1975, earned eight gold medals and broke several world records at European championships for fin swimming, a sport in which competitors propel themselves using a whale's-tail-shaped monofin worn over the feet. He was uncannily good at two things: holding his breath and thrusting forward underwater. During that time, he also served in the soviet Air Defense Force. Because of his being able to hold his breath longer, and his deep diving experience, he was able to save over two dozen people from drowning when, in 1976, a trolleybus went off the rails and sank in the reservoir in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. Later in life, this deed would make himmore famous and respected than any competition could. Born in 1953, Karapetyan was pushed into athletics by his father. He didn’t have any early training or the dexterity to try out for traditional competitive swimming. He fell under the tutelage of Liparit Almasakyan, a swimming pool lifeguard, whose goal was to train young athletes to represent Armenia in international water sports. Almasakyan suggested Karapetyan try fin swimming, for which he would only need strength and stamina. In addition to train- ing in the pool, Karapetyan jogged several miles a day carrying bags of sand on his back. Despite his streak of wins, the Soviet sports federation dropped him from the team bound for the inaugural fin swimming world championship in 1976; they may have thought a recent illness had reduced his ability. To save his sports career, the then-23-year-old Karapetyan began an intense workout regimen. To that end, he was jogging with his brother, Kamo, when the trolleybus, with about 92 passengers on board, derailed into the water.

According to a 1984 article in the Soviet Life, it stated that within seconds, only the poles of the bus could be seen from above. The chilly September wa- ters closed over and swallowed up the doomed vehicle and its passengers. Without a second thought, Karapetyan dove in. The bus had kicked up a layer of sediment when it went in the water, clouding his view. About twenty feet down, Karapetyan felt around for a door. Instead, he found the back window of the bus and dislodged it with a karate kick. This created a 6-foot opening from which he could pull out survivors. The trolleybus was crowded. Karapetyan started bringing people up from the bottom of the lake, to his waiting brother. Using the routine that he had developed from his swimming training, Karapetyan fell into a rhythm. He took five breaths, dove down for two passengers, and kicked against the top of the bus for momentum. He returned to the surface with people in both arms. He had instructed his brother Kamo to stay at the surface and ferry passengers to the bank of the reservoir, as he continued to dive down. Karapetyan’s own legs were bleeding, sliced open by broken glass, but that did not deter him. He dove down over forty times waiting for rescue crews to come. The two-man lifesaving effort lasted about 20 minutes, before a rescue crew arrived, some of whom moved in on kayaks. The combined effect of multiple lacerations from glass shards led to Karapetyan's hospitalization for 45 days, where he developed pneumonia and sepsis. Subsequent lung complications prevented Karapetyan from continuing his sports career. Karapetyan’s body was devastated by his injuries, the stress of the work, and the exposure to cold water. Over the coming months, he trained to return to competitive shape, and a year later, in 1977, he was a contender in the U.S.S.R. fin swimming competition, and in the European championship, earning three silver and one gold medal in the latter. Because of the flurry of action and lack of clear government records, it’s unknown how many people the Karapetyan brothers saved; they estimate about 30. Some survivors freed themselves. Forty-six people died. No one at the competitions had any idea about Karapetyan’s heroic actions—the rescue wasn't a news event. Instead, the Soviets classified the accident, which was standard procedure. The local communist newspaper simply printed a notice that there had been a fatal trolley accident. The people whose lives Karapetyan had saved didn't even know their rescuer’s name. Six years after the trolleybus rescue, a writer for the Soviet newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda learned of the event from one of Karapetyan’s coaches, and surprisingly, local authorities provided documentation when asked. His article, “A Champion’s Underwater Battle,” published in 1982, first informed the Soviet public of the trolleybus incident and about Karapetyan’s heroism, of which his wife of one year, knew nothing about. The story was then picked up by an array of Soviet publications, each one more prominent and well-read, turning Karapetyan into a folk hero. The Kremlin awarded him the Order of the Badge of Honor and the medal for the salvation of the drowning. Three years later, in 1985, Karapetyan was in Yerevan and happened to be walking by the Sports and Concert Arena when he witnessed a fire break out. Of course, he ran in. There were people trapped inside. He rushed in and started pulling people out. Once again, he was badly hurt (severe burns) and spent a long time in the hospital. Karapetyan is a Merited Master of Sports of the USSR, a 17- time world champion and a ten-time World Record-breaker in fin swimming.. He became well known in the former USSR for his heroic actions. He was awarded the Medal "For the Salvation of the Drowning" and the Order of the Badge of Hon- or. He was later awarded a UNESCO "Fair Play" award for his heroism. The main belt asteroid 3027 Shavarsh, in 1978 discovered by, Nikolai Chernykh, at the Crimean Astrophysical Observatory, was named after him. Karapetyan moved to Moscow where he founded a shoe company called "Second Breath". He visits Armenia quite often. He took part in the 2014 Winter Olympics torch relay for the second stage of the run. He was passed the torch in Moscow and carried it towards Krasnogorsk. The next day, Karapetyan carried the torch for a second time. He also stated in an interview, "I was carrying the torch for Russia and for Armenia.” Now, decades after the rescue that made him famous, Shavarsh Karapetyan said that he wouldn’t have changed a thing. Diving into Yerevan Lake that day could have cost him his athletic ca- reer, but he would do it again. “There was no other choice,” he stated. “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.”

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