“It was a cool but sunny day by the lakeside in Yerevan. I was soaking up the last bit of summer sun while singing ashoughagan and folk tunes with some college friends. Ludvig had brought a duduk and was accompanying our friend Talin on her oud. As she strummed, the rest of us chimed in when we recognized the songs. Crowds of people were flocking to the water’s edge, and a jam-packed trolley bus inched its way towards us along the top of the dam.
“Suddenly, I heard a crack, like a gunshot. While I scanned the horizon, wondering if there was someone shooting, I heard a wail and screech of trolley wheels. We watched in horror as the bus flew off the tracks and into the water, and quickly submerged.
“Earlier I’d noticed a pair of men running towards us from the other direction along the lakeside. When the trolley fell into the water, they burst into a sprint, and as they came closer, I recognized them. The Karapetyan brothers were local celebrities; Shavarsh was a world-record holder in finswimming, and at the age of 24, just a bit older than I.
“The rest of us were frozen in disbelief, but Shavarsh and his brother Kamo dove into the frigid water without hesitation. The area around the bus was now murky with silt from the lakebed. I could see Kamo treading water, but Shavarsh had disappeared. Then up popped his head, and we could see he had a person in his arms. He passed the passenger, an older woman, to his brother, who swam towards the lakeside. By now, more people had moved to the lake’s edge to help.
“Shavarsh repeated the ritual, over and over. Every half a minute or so he would pop to the surface, sometimes empty handed, but usually to pass a body to one of the students who’d waded into the water to help. Then he would dive back down. One time he brought up an empty leather chair, and grimaced when he saw what it was. Remembering the faces I’d seen crowded against the windows, I estimated there must have been almost a hundred people in the trolley. Shavarsh just kept going. In the end, he saved 20.
“Some divers had by now showed up to help, but their air tanks were empty, and of course by then it would have been too late to save anyone else: The bus had been submerged for more than 20 minutes. When Shavarsh was finally dragged to the shore by his brother, we could see deep cuts along his well-muscled swimmer’s legs, streaking dark red blood. He collapsed and was taken to a local hospital. Our friend Narine was a student nurse there, and told us later he’d gotten pneumonia from the filthy water, and was in a coma for 6 weeks.
“The illness did not quite kill Shavarsh, but it killed his athletic career, as his lungs were never the same. This was in the Soviet era, so there was nothing in the papers about it. Later we heard there’d been a fight between a passenger and the trolley driver that caused the accident. The story of Shavarsh saving all those people came out only years later. Most survivors hadn’t even known the name of the man who’d saved them! Since he lost his athletic ability, Shavarsh had to try something else. I heard he went to Moscow and started a shoe company. He called it ‘Second Wind.’
“A friend of my father once commented on it. He said, ‘Shavarsh’s lungs and legs might have made it possible for him to save those people. But his great heart made it certain.’ “
On September 16, 1976, the champion swimmer Shavarsh Karapetyan saved the lives of 20 victims of a trolley accident on Lake Yerevan, Armenia. As an athlete, Shavarsh was used to a certain form of hero worship. The Lakota Sioux say that the virtues of the hero include Wo'hitika (Courage) and Wowa'cintanka (Fortitude). And on that day Shavarsh showed these. But that day Shavarsh Karapetyan showed us one more virtue of the hero. That day Shavarsh Karapetyan showed us the meaning of Icicupi (Sacrifice).
May we see the gates of Icicupi, and perhaps make a home there.