It’s not often you get to hear the story of a real life, genuine, bona fide super hero. So sit yourself upright and drink this in.
Our hero today is one Shavarsh Karapetyan, born in 1953. He was a Soviet Armenian finswimmer with the following accolades: 11-time World Record holder, 17-time World Champion, 13-time European Champion and 7-time USSR Champion. So, he was pretty good it seems.
I’m not sure I think of athletes as true heroes though. They do the sports because they like them and they train hard because they want to win. I know a lot of people consider playing, running, swimming or kicking a ball for your country heroic but I disagree. Don’t hate. So, anyway, that’s not why he’s a hero. Read on.
One day in September ’76, Shavarsh was training with his brother, they were running along the banks of the Yerevan Lake. Having completed their normal 12 mile circuit they heard the sound of a trolleybus careering out of control and falling off the dam into the freezing water below.
I would have called 999 and started crying, but Shavarsh Karapetyan is made of sterner stuff than I. The bus was about 25m off shore and at a depth of about 10m, he jumped in without a second thought; despite there being pretty much zero visibility he managed to kick the back window in and start dragging people out. (As an aside, I went on a holiday with my family when I was a nipper and dropped my goggles in the sea. The water must have only been a few metres deep but I still couldn’t swim down and fetch them. My brother (younger) had to get them for me. I guess I am lamer than most though.)
He saved the lives of 20 people, he dragged out many more but they didn’t make it, he made about 30 dives in total. He received multiple wounds from glass and the freezing water and was unconscious in hospital for 45 days. It was touch and go whether he would even survive. The lake was contaminated with raw sewage so he developed sepsis. His injuries meant he would never compete in the pool again. When asked what the worst part of his ordeal was he said:
I knew that I could only save so many lives, I was afraid to make a mistake. It was so dark down there that I could barely see anything. One of my dives, I accidentally grabbed a seat instead of a passenger… I could have saved a life instead. That seat still haunts me in my nightmares.
Karapetyan’s heroism wasn’t picked up straight away, the photos of the incident were kept at the district attorney’s office and were only brought to light years later. He was eventually given a medal “For The Rescue of the Drowning” and the Order of the Badge of Honor. Komsomolskaya Pravda published an article on his endeavor, called “The Underwater Battle of the Champion”. This publication revealed he was the rescuer and he received in the region of 60,000 letters from well wishers.
Good. That’s enough to be classed as a hero. But it’s not enough for Shavarsh Karapetyan. In February, 1985, he happened upon a burning building with people inside. What did he do? Well, I don’t think you have to ask; He was straight in there. He got severe burns and was hospitalised at length once again.