Vartabedian: Are you going to help me?

Every once in awhile—and more often than not—a story comes along that warms the cockles of my heart. It may not be one that I have written but something I read.

Reading has always been a passion with me, not necessarily marathon books like War and Peace or Crime and Punishment, but rather quickies.

Lately I’ve been perusing the pages of these Chicken Soup books—stories that open the heart and rekindle the spirit. This morning, I happened to run across a story compiled by one of the authors, Mark Victor Hansen. I’d like to share it because it was one that escaped my attention, and quite possibly yours as well.

It had to do with the 8.2 earthquake that struck Armenia back in 1989 when the country was flattened, killing over 30,000 people in less than four minutes. Whether the incident took place in Gyumri or Spitak remains to be seen. Those were the areas that took the brunt of the loss.

In the midst of utter devastation and chaos, a father left his wife securely at home and rushed to the school where his son was supposed to be, only to discover that the building had been flattened as a pancake.

After the traumatic initial shock, this man remembered the promise he had made to his son: “No matter what, I’ll always be there for you!” And tears began to fill his eyes. As he looked at the pile of debris that once was the school, it looked hopeless, but he kept remembering his commitment to his son.

He began to concentrate on where he walked his son to school each morning. Remembering his son’s classroom would be in the back right corner of the building, he rushed there and started digging through the rubble.

As he was digging, other forlorn parents arrived, clutching their hearts, saying, “My son!” “My daughter!”

Other well-meaning parents tried pulling him off what was left of the school, saying:

“It’s too late!”

“They’re dead!”

“You can’t help!”

“Go home!”

“Come on, face reality, there’s nothing you can do!”

“You’re just going to make things worse!”

To each parent, he responded with one line: “Are you going to help me now?”

And then he proceeded to dig for his son, stone by stone.

The fire chief showed up and tried to pull him off the school’s debris, saying, “Fires are breaking out, explosions are happening everywhere. You’re in danger. We’ll take care of it. Please go home.”

To which this loving, caring Armenian father asked, “Are you going to help me now?”

The police came and said, “You’re angry, distraught, and it’s over. You’re endangering others. We’ll take care of it. Go home.”

No one helped.

Courageously, he proceeded alone because he needed to know for himself: “Is my boy alive, or is he dead?”

He dug for eight hours…12 hours…24, and 36 hours. Then, in the 38th hour, he pulled back a boulder and heard his son’s voice. The man screamed his son’s name, “Armand!”

He heard back, “Dad? It’s me, Dad! I told the other kids not to worry. I told them that if you were alive, you’d save me, and when you saved me, they’d be saved. You promised, ‘No matter what, I’ll always be there for you!’ You did it, Dad!”

“There are 14 of us left out of 33, Dad. We’re scared, hungry, thirsty, and thankful you’re here. When the building collapsed, it made a wedge, like a triangle, and it saved us.”

“Come on out, boy!”

“No, Dad! Let the other kids come out first, because I know you’ll get me. No matter what, I know you’ll be there for me.”

Now, here it is, 22 years later, and stories about the earthquake still permeate our lives. Two years ago when I visited Gyumri, a trip to the music academy found me interviewing the director. She was driven to the streets, pregnant at the time, while barely escaping her toppled home.

Others around her weren’t so fortunate. The school she taught at was leveled, along with much of the surroundings. The woman vowed to see her institute rebuilt and followed her dream as a memorial tribute to those who were connected to music and the performing arts.

Stories like these aren’t exactly Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, but are every bit as memorable in their own small way.


Tom Vartabedian

Tom Vartabedian is a retired journalist with the Haverhill Gazette, where he spent 40 years as an award-winning writer and photographer. He has volunteered his services for the past 46 years as a columnist and correspondent with the Armenian Weekly, where his pet project was the publication of a special issue of the AYF Olympics each September.

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  1. Minor correction. The earthquake was about 6.8 or 6.9 in magnitude. This makes it even more tragic. Bad building construction is what amplified the quake’s destructive potential.

    Thank you for sharing these stories from that tragic day.

    • But the question is though the story is exemplary, quite nice and heart moving, whether it is true or not? If there was a father like that who saved his son alone like that if not with all other children, or recovered the dead body of his son like that with all his strenuous labour? Or is it wholly fictional? Those who have gone there must have enquired that also.

  2. Tom:
    Another wonderful article, sharing a story that is in all of our hearts.  You never know how you will personally respond to a crisis situation like this when it happends.  When i went to Gumri and Spitak after the earthquake to help open the Children’s Hospital in Gumri that the Austrian government built, I met many of these parents that fit the description of this father.  Most were not as lucky as he, but then most did not do what he did.  Trusting the same authorities who allowed these inadequate structures to be built, who put people at risk for their own personal profit and who have shown inconsideration to the common man then and after the recovery ended, may not be the best path to follow in this situation. Following your heart and commitment to your family should be a strong contender for your actions and influence of others.  It pains me to wonder how many others could have been saved with a more aggressive and sensitive response, beyond whatever heroic efforts were made.


  3. tom – it’s been many years since i left haverhill. my mother dies in march, and i got inspired- see this planning forum i’ve organized for july 15 in nyc about creating a vision for places like haverhill, transforming with green industries like microbreweries. shoetown to brewtown….read the ” about” section….
    i’m a restauranteur ,
    radio host  see “beer sessions radio”

  4. This is certainly a heartwarming story. However, is there any verification that it actually happened? In Chicken Soup for the Soul (2012 edition) the introduction says that “We have attributed every story we could to the original source.” This story is only attributed to Mark Victor Hansen, one of the authors of the book and a motivational speaker.

  5. Great story. Exemplifies how most Dads would react to save a beloved Son. I was there and many, many Armenians did not give up on each other. These heroic people dug for weeks with there bare hands with little sleep or nourishment. Being there at that time, under those conditions has affected me deeply all these years . I still dream of Armenia and Gyane, Hovic and Nurses. The kids, the families the proud history, the culture. I can taste the rose petal jam and fresh buttered bread for breakfast and see the smile on Nurses face as we argued world politics across the table. My heart broke for you when I had to leave.

  6. I have been using this true story ( I feel it is true) in my motivational speeches. some of the lessons we learn from this story are: let us not forget commitment we have made because that will make you stronger, courageous, positive to honour the commitment, will make you ‘never-say-die-spirit’ person. Listen your heart and not many who look at darker side and give up without making sincere efforts.This is an apt example – come what may don’t die before death.

  7. For those asking if this story is true. Yes, it is. One of the 14 children who survived moved to the United States with her family. I used to work with her many years ago and she told me this exact same story. How a lot of the students had died but there were 14 of them who survived and they waited for a day and half to be rescued. Beautiful story.

    • Maria, it is a great story, but is it true? What is the name of the child who moved to the USA? I am sure she should be able to confirm the identity of the father who is the hero in this story, because I cannot find any other source who can identify him?

  8. This is a story I heard of and, like others, am curious as to whether this is indeed non fiction or fiction, a nice story to share to inspire others not to give up hope. I all my research I have yet to find a single solid reference that backs it up as true. Is there any chance that anyone can provide verification?

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