Peggy Keener: The rejected hero

Published 5:49 pm Friday, November 25, 2022

Shavarsh Karapetyan was making the final push of a 13-mile run. With a 45-pound bag of sand strapped to his back, he was fueled by a raging fury ever since the Soviet coaches had dropped him from the national swim team. “Why?” he asked. At only 23, and having barely reached his prime, he had already captured eight European swimming titles and earned numerous world records for the USSR. Was it because he was Armenian? But for now, all he could do was train and hope to someday rejoin the team. The date was Sept. 16, 1976.

Suddenly there was a terrible racket; the sound of metal smashing against concrete. Shavarsh looked just as a trolleybus disappeared below the surface of the nearby lake, its two electric trolley poles poking up like antennae.

Giving no thought to his own welfare, Shavarsh sprinted toward the commotion, ditched the weighted backpack, stripped to his skivvies and dove into the lake. As he treaded water 80-feet from shore, he could see large air bubbles rising from below the water and bursting at the surface. “The passengers can breathe down there,” he thought, “but not for long.”

Shavarsh’s brother, Kamo, was right behind him. Also an accomplished swimmer, Kamo dove in. Using the trolley poles as guideposts, the men descended 15-feet to discover that the trolley’s bumper was buried in the lake bed. Searching desperately, they found no escape hatches. Shavarsh yelled at Kamo that he would dive down to retrieve the passengers, but Kamo should stay at the surface to receive them.

Locating a back window, Shavarsh brought his leg to his chest and thrust it like a karate kick through the glass, the jagged shards shredding his skin. The kick dislodged a 6-foot-wide window, but by then a hurricane of silt from the lake bed was making it almost impossible to see as he groped around for anything that felt human.

Some 90 rush hour passengers were onboard when the trolleybus rumbled onto the bridge. Factory workers, school children, university students, housewives, and pensioners were tossed about as it sailed over an embankment and nose-dived into the water.

Who was to blame? No one ever knew for sure, but a government report faulted the driver for speeding. Witnesses, however, said the driver was distracted as he tried to catch an escaping pickpocket. In the scuffle, the thief hit him on the head with a metal bar causing the driver to lose control of the vehicle.

Deep in the blackness, the passengers were frantically searching for an opening, but maneuvering through the crowded vehicle proved nearly impossible. A 17-year-old survivor later reported that she found refuge in an air pocket at the back of the bus. “I knew I was close to death.” Then nearly unconscious, she felt someone grasp her. “I didn’t see him, but I remember being dragged upward by strong, muscular hands. Then I blacked out.”

By this time Shavarsh had established a rhythm for his rescue mission. After snatching a passenger, he would swim to the top of the trolleybus, plant his feet on the roof and rocket to the surface with his human cargo. There Kamo would grab the person and carry him to awaiting rescue boats. Once the victim was safe, Shavarsh dived again.

Ironically, only moments before the accident Shavarsh had been ratcheting up his workout to prove to the sports federation the grave error they had committed by dropping him from the swim team. Now all that was instantly forgotten as he repeatedly dove into the abyss where he could not determine whether the passengers were dead or alive. And then Shavarsh made a mistake that would haunt him for the rest of his days.

As an elite underwater swimmer, he had immediately come up with a hyperventilation technique. While lifting each passenger out of the water he took five deep breaths. But then in the rush to save as many lives as possible, he momentarily betrayed his training. Instead of taking five breaths, he took only one. Back under water, he scrambled around inside the trolley where the urge to breathe became unbearable. Grabbing the first object that drifted by, he bolted upward. He emerged with a large, rectangular bus seat. Shavarsh had mistaken it for a passenger. “That cost one life,” Shavarsh later lamented. “I should have taken five breaths.”

Twenty minutes into the heroic rescue, the emergency workers told him to stop. Anyone left inside was dead and he shouldn’t kill himself for nothing. But the work wasn’t finished. By then two cranes had arrived to lift the trolleybus from the lake. Shavarsh and Kamo dived back in and fastened the crane’s cables to the trolley poles so the bus could be dragged from the lake. On the first attempt, Shavarsh couldn’t get the cables to stay attached to the poles, so he took a crowbar from one of the rescue boats and dove again.

Smashing a window on one side, he then swam to the opposite side and shattered a window there. After several more dives, Shavarsh was able to thread the cable through the broken windows. When he surfaced for the last time, he passed the cables to Kamo who handed them to the crane operators so they could hoist the trolleybus from the lake. As water drained from the windows, the bystanders could see more than 40 bodies scattered across the floor.

Less than 45 minutes after the crash, the bus was back on dry land. Shavarsh had dragged 35 people out of the water, several of whom were dead. Finally pulling himself onshore, he felt his legs begin to wobble as he began to lose consciousness. His father rushed to his side, took off his own shirt and wrapped it around the gashes in his son’s leg. “There is nothing more for you to do here,” he told his boy.

That evening Shavarsh’s temperature spiked at 104 degrees. Mumbling incoherently and racked by convulsions, his body had been ravaged by the prolonged exposure in the frigid polluted lake. He was diagnosed with pneumonia in both lungs and rushed to the hospital where doctors pumped him full of antibiotics. Three weeks later, Shavarsh finally managed to stand on his own. Had he not been such a superb athlete, it is doubtful he could have survived. After fighting for the lives of others, God had given him the strength to fight for his own.

Within a month, he was back in the pool. There he realized that his respiratory system had suffered irreversible damage. And there was more. He encountered an unexpected psychological barrier. “It wasn’t that I was scared of the water,” he said, “it was that I just hated it.” He said he felt like a man jumping into a tank of piranhas.

The following spring, the USSR swimming competition was held. Restored to the team, Shavarsh said he “swam to the death. I had never raced so angry before.” With his lungs burning, he finished far ahead of the other swimmers. But despite the win, he was too weak to get out of the pool. Shavarsh’s time was 3:06.2. It was his 11th and final world record. Additionally, that year he captured one gold and three silver medals for his homeland. It was a remarkable achievement after nearly killing himself only a year earlier.

The Soviet government, loathe to admit any weaknesses, eventually made public the news of the trolleybus accident. The report totaled fewer than 100 words. Some sympathetic workers finally recognized the heroics of the brothers and gave them certificates and a financial reward of 38 rubles, about a quarter of the average worker’s monthly wage. Their father returned the money and the certificates stating that his sons had not done it for the money.

Years later, Savarsh’s wife would learn of her husband’s gallantry as he had never mentioned it to her. When she asked him why, his reply was, “We needed to make babies, not tell stories.”