Twice the Hero, This Olympic Swimmer Saved Many Lives

In 1976, Shavarsh Karapetyan, an Armenian Olympic swimmer who earned eight gold medals and broke several world records at European championships for finswimming, had just completed a 12-mile run with his brother Kamo when they saw a trolley bus crash into a dam reservoir. The trolley bus sank 80 feet offshore at a depth of 33 feet.

It was September 16, 1976 when Karapetyan risked his own life to save over three dozen people from drowning in the reservoir Yerevan, the capital of Armenia.

Despite zero visibility, he managed to kick in the back window, injuring himself in the process. He proceeded to save 37 people trapped in the bus, one at a time, for hours.

Using the routine 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 as he returned to the surface with the people in both arms.

He had instructed Kamo to stay at the surface and ferry passengers to the bank of the reservoir, as he dove again and again. Karapetyan’s own legs were bleeding, sliced open by broken glass, but that did not deter him.

The two-man lifesaving effort lasted about 20 minutes, before a rescue crew arrived, some of whom moved in on kayaks.

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.

Karapetyan after rescuing about 37 people, is shirtless at the bottom center.

The combined effect of the cold water and his inquiries from breaking the glass window led to his hospitalization for 45 days after the incident, during which time he developed pneumonia, sepsis, and lung damage which ended his athletic career.

For years, his story wasn’t known, until an article about the event identified him by name in 1982. In 1985, he happened to pass by the Sports and Concert Arena when he witnessed a fire break out and rushed inside, again saving people trapped inside one at a time until he collapsed. He was again hospitalized with severe burns and lung damage.

He retired at the age of 24, having set 11 world records. Karapetyan held 17 world championship titles, 13 European championship titles, and seven Soviet championship titles.

He was born in 1953. As of 2022, Karapetyan says that he wouldn’t change a thing. Diving into Yerevan Lake that day cost him his athletic career. But he would do it again.

“There was no other choice,” he said. “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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From award-winning Texas author Cynthia Leal Massey.

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