In times of disaster, one’s true human nature is revealed. Will you be a coward and run away? Will you only look after number one? Or will you put aside everything and help a complete stranger?
In the case of Armenian finswimmer Shavarsh Karapetyan, it is definitely the latter.
On September 16, 1976, Shavarsh was doing a 13-mile run with 45 pounds of sand strapped to his back when he heard the sound of a loud crash. The source was a trolleybus that smashed through the concrete dam wall and then fell into a reservoir known as Lake Yerevan.
That trolleybus was filled with about 90 people. The reservoir was 33ft deep and the trolleybus sank to the bottom.
Shavarsh, who was with his brother Kamo, did not waste any time. He raced down, threw off his backpack, stripped down to his undies and dived into the murky water.
No other person could have done what Shavarsh did next.
Call it destiny or fate that Shavarsh, 23-years-old at the time, was there and happened to be a World Champion finswimmer when the accident occurred.
Shavarsh and Kamo, who was an accomplished swimmer too, dove under to find an open window or door, but there was none. Shavarsh knew he had to break a window. When they reemerged, Shavarsh asked Kamo to remain above in case anything happened to him and to catch the people as they came up, the Grantland reported.
On his next dive down, he found the back window and kicked it down as hard as he could. The glass broke with the shards cutting his legs. Shavarsh pulled the window out. Due to the lack of visibility from the silt, he groped around searching in the dark for anything that felt human.
According to the Grantland, after finding someone, Shavarsh would pull them out of the trolleybus, put his feet on top of the trolleybus, then propel himself up. Kamo, who was waiting at the top, would then take the passenger to the kayakers who arrived at the scene to help.
“It was scary at first. It was so loud, as if a bomb went off. I almost drowned several times. I could imagine the agony of those 92 people and I knew how they would die,” Shavarsh would later tell Pravmir.ru.
Shavarsh dove into the cold water about 40 times in the span of 20 minutes.
On one dive, Shavarsh was in a rush to quickly return to help someone, knowing that time was running out, he forgot to do his hyperventilation technique which required him to take five deep breaths. In his haste, he only took one. The Grantland reports that when he was down below, the need to breathe became uncontrollable. In that moment he grabbed whatever was floating by. It turned out to be a seat cushion.
After 20 minutes of continuous diving, emergency workers told him to stop. No one would be alive anymore and they didn’t want him to risk his own life.
By the end, Shavarsh had pulled 37 people out with 20 surviving.
Shavarsh’s heroism came at a price though.
The following day, he was diagnosed with pneumonia in both lungs, had a 104-degree fever, and suffered from convulsions. The cold, dirty waters of Lake Yerevan took its toll on his body. He was hospitalized for three weeks.
When he was released, Shavarsh tried to train again but suffered from lung complications. Not only was his body experiencing difficulties, a mental issue developed.
“It wasn’t that I was scared of the water,” he told Grantland. “I just hated it.”
Despite these challenges, Shavarsh competed in the USSR Championship one more time. He broke a world record — his 11th and last. Later on in the year, he competed in Hungary and won three silver medals and a gold.
No one would know the obstacles he had to overcome to win these titles since his actions at Lake Yerevan were kept away from the public.
It would be six years later when Komsomolskaya Pravda daily published his story that the public learned of Shavarsh’s heroic deed.
Shavarsh’s wife, whom he met and married in 1981, never knew about his daring rescue either. “She asked me why I never told her,” Shavarsh recalled. “I said, ‘We need to make babies, not tell stories.’”
There’s more to Shavarsh than meets the eye. For sure.
See the video in Russian below for more clips about Shavarsh: