Shavarash and the Trolleybus

Brad Dison

The morning of September 16, 1976 was chilly in Yerevan, Armenia.  The streets were busy with commuters heading to work and other various destinations.  The city used trolleybuses powered by electric lines above the highway to transport the masses of people to their destinations.  Windows wrapped around the entirety of the upper half of the trolleybuses to allow for better visibility.  As it was a chilly morning, all the windows were closed to keep the cold air out.  One such trolleybus was loaded with 91 people and its driver.  As the trolleybus neared Yerevan Lake, something happened.  Some people claimed the passengers and the driver got into a physical altercation, while others argued that the driver had a medical emergency, probably a heart attack.  Regardless of the cause, the trolleybus veered off the roadway.  The arms connecting the trolleybus to the electric wires snapped.  Although the trolleybus had lost its power source, it rolled on its wheels down an embankment and straight into the frigid waters of Yerevan Lake.   One witness said the sound was “so loud, as if a bomb went off.”  Within seconds, the trolleybus was completely submerged.

Sometimes it seems like the right people are in the right place at the right time.  23-year-old Shavarash Karapetyan and his brother Kamo were nearby, heard the crash, and rushed to the water’s edge.  Both Shavarash and Kamo were finswimming champions, a sport in which the swimmers wear fins to increase their speed in the water.  At the time, Shavarash had won 37 gold medals and held nine world records for finswimming.  He had earned nicknames such as “Goldfish” and “Amphibian.”  On this day, however, neither Shavarash nor Kamo had their fins.  Without hesitation, Shavarash sprang into action.  As they ran, Shavarash told Kamo to help him from the shore. 

Shavarash dove into the frigid water and swam to the spot where the trolleybus sank.  He swam down 33 feet where the trolleybus rested on the lake floor.  Shavarash tried to look into the windows of the trolleybus but, at that depth, all he saw was darkness.  Shavarash knocked out one of the trolleybus’s windows.  Air rushed out of the trolleybus.  The change in air pressure by the broken glass forced shards of glass into Shavarash’s skin.  Nine of the passengers exited through the window and swam to the surface. 

Shavarash swam in through the trolleybus’s broken window and used his hands to feel around for passengers in the darkness.  When his hands felt something, he clutched it, swam to the surface, and handed the person off to Kamo.  Then, he dove down again and repeated the process.  Each dive took Shavarash about 25 seconds.  Although he was a champion swimmer, Shavarash was quickly losing strength.  He would not give up.  He could not give up.  Shavarash dove down 38 times before his body could go no further.  He almost drowned several times but somehow barely made it to the surface in time, gasping for air.  On his last dive, Shavarash felt around inside the trolleybus for a passenger, clutched something, and swam up.  On the surface, Shavarash was horrified to learn that, rather than a victim, he was grasping one of the trolleybus’s seat cushions.    

Shavarash could swim no more.  His body was exhausted.  His lungs were injured and he could hardly breath.  Shavarash wanted to go back down but Kamo pulled him from the water.  He could do no more.  In all, Shavarash helped get 46 people to the surface—nine escaped when Shavarash broke the trolleybus’s window, and he pulled 37 people to the surface. 

Within minutes of the crash, doctors from a nearby hospital rushed to the scene to render what aid they could right there on the shore.  Once Shavarash’s strength gave out and Kamo pulled him from the water, the doctors struggled to save his life as well.  Ambulances loaded with survivors raced to the hospital and returned to the shore to transport more survivors, one of them being Shavarash.  Of the passengers Shavarash pulled to the surface, 20 survived.  Shavarash spent over a month in the hospital.  He was diagnosed with septic fever, double-sided pneumonia, and nervous prostration. 

Shavarash survived the trolleybus accident, but it haunts him to this day.  Shavarash nearly drowned several times.  He said later, “I could imagine the agony of those 92 people and I knew how they would die.  I had nightmares about that cushion for a long time.  I could have saved someone else’s life.  In difficult moments like this, your love for fellow humans grows even stronger.”

Shavarash returned to swimming upon his release from the hospital, but he would never be the same.  Swimming underwater was physically and mentally painful.  True to form, however, Shavarash would not give up.  Just a few months after the trolleybus accident, Shavarash competed in a finswimming championship.  Knowing how he was struggling, Kamo ran alongside the pool just in case Shavarash lost consciousness.  But Shavarash did not lose consciousness.  He came in first place and set another world record.  Following this win, Shavarash retired from the sport he so dearly loved.  He could no longer bear to be underwater.

Shavarash was awarded the Medal “For the Salvation of the Drowning” and the Order of the Badge of Honor. What was Shavarash doing just before the trolleybus accident you wonder?  What was he doing just before he dove down to a depth of 33 feet 38 times and helped 47 people from the sunken trolleybus?  You see, Shavarash was already exhausted when he entered the water.  Shavarash had just completed the final portion of that morning’s rigorous training event, a 12-mile run.

Source: “Twenty-Five Seconds per Life.” Accessed November 21, 2022.