Monday 16 September 2013

Soviet Swimmer Saves Souls

Shavarsh Karapetyan

The water was no stranger to finswimmer Sharvarsh Karapetyan from Armenia, USSR.  He had won the Soviet championships 7 times, the European championships 13 times and the world championships 7 times. He had broken ten finswimming records, a sport which requires the use of fins.

Today, he was on a 12 mile jog in Yereven with his brother, also a swimmer, when tragedy struck:  a trolleybus fell off a dam wall into a deep reservoir with 92 passengers trapped inside.  Without hesitation, Sharvash dove into the murky waters, stirred up by the bus, and swam 80 feet from the shore to the bus, then dove down another 33 feet.

Yereven Lake courtesy

Swashing the rear window, Sharvarsh quickly grabbed the first passenger he found and ferried him to the surface.  Conscious of how quickly time was passing, he swam as fast as he could, average one person every thirty seconds.  At the surface, his brother, would help the waterlogged passengers to shore.  With limited visibility, Sharvarsh lugged one person to safety only to find it was a leather chair.

Official help arrived later, but the divers had no air for their diving balloons and consequently could not help.  Sharvarsh continued to dive into the murky water, despite the lacerations on his legs, despite the fatigue, despite the cold.  Finally, after his 30th dive, the finswimmer passed out and was taken to shore and loaded into an ambulance.  In total, Sharvarsh pulled over 20 people from the reservoir, 20 of whom survived.

Submersed trolley car courtesy

Survivors said that an argument had broken out on the bus between the driver and a passenger who wanted to be let off the bus at an unscheduled stop.  The driver refused to comply, and the passenger struck him, causing the accident.

In the meantime, Sharvarsh was in serious condition at the local hospital:  he had double pneumonia, lung complications and sepsis, caused by the raw sewage in the reservoir.  He lay unconscious for 45 days.  When he finally came out of his coma, it was not to a hero's welcome for the accident had been kept quiet.  It was not until two years later, when photos from the accident were published, the hero was given the recognition he deserved.  At that time, the government gave the finswimmer two medals for his bravery.

Sharvarsh did not become a household name in the Soviet Union, however, until an article was published by Pravda in 1982 titled "The Underwater Battle of the Champ".  Sharvarsh received an outpouring of love from the public in the form of 60,000 letters.

But the story was over for the Soviet finswimmer.  In 1985, he was walking by a burning building and did not hesitate to run inside and rescue its trapped inhabitants.  Once again, he was seriously injured, this time with burns.  Once again, he recovered.

In 1993, Sharvarsh moved to Moscow where he opened a shoe shop for which he couldn't have chosen a more appropriate name -- "Second Breath".  Sharvarsh's second, third and fourth breath gave those drowning trolleybus passengers a "second chance" at life.

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