Soviet Champion Saves 20 Lives, 1976

On September 16, 1976, Shavarsh Karapetyan was just finishing up a 12-mile run. He was in training, along with his brother, Kamo. Both young men were Soviet finswimmers, a competitive swimming sport. Shavarsh had won the European Championship 13 times, and the USSR Championship seven times. He would never compete again.

The Karapetyan brothers were running along the shores of Lake Yerevan, a reservoir in the Armenian capital city of Yerevan, when they saw a trolleybus go off the road and sink to the bottom of the reservoir. The bus was 80 feet off shore, and 33 feet down. Shavarsh dove in and found the bus, despite the clouds of silt which provided almost zero visibility. He broke the back window of the bus with his feet, and began taking passengers to the surface.

Shavarsh made 30 trips, and managed to bring 20 people to the surface, where he turned them over to his brother, who helped them the rest of the way to shore. There had been 92 passengers on the trolleybus. By the end he was so tired that he scarcely knew what he was doing. On one trip, he brought a leather chair out of the bus, so exhausted that he didn’t realize that it wasn’t a person. For the rest of his life, he regretted that error. If he had not made it, he might have been able to save another person.

Following the rescue, Karapetyan was unconscious for 45 days. He had been injured during the rescues, had been too long in the extremely cold water, and then contracted sepsis from the reservoir water — which had raw sewage flowing into it. Lung complications and exhaustion have prevented him from swimming competitively ever since. Instead, he runs a small shoe production company called “Second Breath.”

Karapetyan’s accomplishment was kept a secret for at least two years after the incident, perhaps because the professional divers dispatched had failed so miserably. They had air tanks — but the tanks were empty. The only people saved that day were the ones Karapetyan had brought to the surface.

Karapetyan was awarded the Order of the Badge of Honor by the USSR, and another medal “For Saving Drowning People in the Water.” An asteroid discovered in 1978 has also been named after him, the 3027 Shavarsh.

No one knows for certain what caused the accident, but some of the rescued passengers believe that it may have been caused when a passenger began beating the driver. Apparently, the passenger had wanted the driver to make an unscheduled stop, and the driver refused, saying that he wasn’t a taxicab.

Sources: Chase’s Calendar of Events, 2011 Edition: The Ultimate Go-To Guide for Special Days, Weeks, and Months, Editors of Chase’s Calendar of Events; 16;;;;

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