Magazine Jul/Aug 2013 The Last Record

13 July 2013, 13:40
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The Last Record

If Shavarsh Karapetian lived in Ancient Greece, he and his lifesaving deeds would have become a part of Greek mythology on the same scale as those of Hercules. His heroic acts saved the lives of countless, and it all happened in times of peace. All of that on top of his athletic achievements as a multiple record-holder and world champion finswimmer.

Close Encounter

The fire started at dawn, and the first passersby was watching in terror as the flames were taking over the structure of the athletic-concert complex on Tsitsernakaberd Hill. It seemed that on that February day of 1985, the city would lose the sports and arts complex that the citizens were so proud of – a magnificent modern structure built just a year earlier. The firefighters were already on site supported by volunteers. Shavarsh Karapetian was one of them.

He noticed the blaze as he was arriving at his workplace across the street. In such critical moments, some people turn the gears of their mind to autopilot – their reactions time up to the highest limits, and they act before the impulses reach their conscience. For him, human dignity prevailed over the basic instinct of survival. Shavarsh picked up the water hose from someone’s weakening hands and aimed the powerful water stream on the raging fires. He was amidst a scene of terror – people screaming, walls of the building collapsing, and the firefighters losing consciousness, choking on smoke. And then… an explosion.

Shavarsh could not recall how he had appeared in the intensive care unit of the hospital; he was unconscious when the emergency squad rushed him in.

Chronologically, that was the third of Shavarsh Karapetian’s heroic deeds. I started this article with the fire incident because it occurred long after the publication of my book about this amazing person, so naturally it was not included in it. Frankly, it seemed to me that there is something mystical in all of this – for some inexplicable reason Karapetian always happens to be the one who is “there” at “the site of the accident.”

The first of such incidents occurred in 1974 in Tsakhkadzor. This mountain resort was built as the Olympic training camp for the USSR athletic teams before the Olympic Games in Mexico. Numerous Soviet athletes and Olympic medalists trained there in conditions of high elevation. Among them were Shavarsh Karapetian and his teammates. On January 8, 1974, he was coming back to Yerevan from Olympic camp. The bus carried more than 30 passengers, many of whom were athletes, singing and joking. On one of the steep road curves, the driver stopped the bus because something went wrong with the engine. He got off the bus to check. At first no one noticed that the bus was slowly rolling down the slope since it was too noisy in the passenger’s cabin. Shavarsh was the first one who realized that the driver’s seat was empty. In the meantime, the bus was quickly gaining speed, inevitably approaching the edge of a deep canyon. Every second was crucial. Shavarsh broke the glass divider between the cockpit and the passengers’ salon with his elbow. He jumped into the driver’s seat and hit the brakes. It was no use, the brakes failed. A second more and the bus would have fallen off the cliff. But in just that same instance, Shavarsh turned the steering wheel toward the mountain slope. That was the only right decision and prevented a catastrophe that saved the lives of 30 people. Later, when he was asked how he managed to do that, Shavarsh famously said, “It’s just that I was the closest to the cockpit…”


The Price of Seconds

The second time Shavarsh Karapetian happened to be at the epicenter of an extreme situation was in 1977. A trolleybus full of passengers was crossing a dam over the Yerevan Water Reservoir, which the citizens call “the sea.” No one will ever know why the street car abruptly turned sideways, crashed through a low barrier and fell into 20 meters of water. As I was looking through this voluminous case compiled by the investigative commission, the terrible picture of the accident passed before my eyes. The trolleybus dived into the water nose first, and there on the very bottom was the driver himself. It was impossible to tell the exact reasons why it happened, but the forensic experts established that the driver had a history of heart disease. His medical card also stated that he suffered from hypertension. It is possible that passing through the dam the driver lost consciousness, fell to the side and involuntarily turned the wheel.

At that same time Shavarsh Karapetian’s father, Vladimir, was driving home by the reservoir. He knew that his two sons were practicing there. He often visited them during their long practices, which sometimes lasted for four, even eight hours. That day Shavarsh and Kamo had a regular intensive practice. Shavarsh had just completed his usual 20-kilometer warm-up run (a champion’s warm-up), when he saw an unbelievable sight – a trolleybus plunging through the air. And a few seconds later, concentric water circles covered the top of the vehicle. In an article about Shavarsh, journalist Yevgeny Bocharov wrote: “It’s striking that it took him only a fraction of a second to come up with a decision, which became the most significant decision of his life. In the meantime, just like the rest of us, he spends many hours, sometimes weeks, on many far less significant decisions. But here – just an instant.” It is understandable, however, that these seconds for Shavarsh and Kamo were different from those for most people.

The fact that the two brothers were there at the water reservoir was pure coincidence. Just as it was when Shavarsh was the closest person to the driver’s seat in the bus in 1974. However, there is a legitimate explanation why the first people to arrive at the site of the accident were the two brothers. They were not professional runners, but they covered the distance to the location of the accident with the speed of sprinters, and seconds later they were in the water.

They were both equals and rivals in sports. The two brothers were the two best finswimmers and divers in the world, and it showed when they were needed most. Earlier that year Shavarsh said in an interview, “My strongest rival in sprint is my brother, Kamo.” The interview was right after he had set his tenth world record in finswimming. Kamo came in second, a second behind.
The trolleybus submerged into water ten meters deep. It’s hard to dive that deep without diving equipment, but the brothers had the ability to dive as deep as 30 meters. And the most crucial factor in that situation was speed.
Both brothers are world record holders in short distance finswimming. So it was just a coincidence that they were in the location of the accident in that particular moment of time. Everything else seemed carefully planned. The older brother immediately took command. “I will pull people out of the bus, you will take them from me.” An instant later Shavarsh dived into the complete darkness of the water. He had to be extremely quick and efficient. Everything, every breath of air in his lungs, every move, and mental commands he was giving himself, were quick and short. Holding to the poles of the trolleybus, he kicked out one of the large side windows and swam into the bus full of shocked and unconscious people.

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