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A Critical Moment
Vahagn Tonoyan was born in Yerevan in 1971. His father worked in communications and his mother was an accountant. He and his siblings spent many summers in Stepanavan where their grandparents lived. He remembers joyful times hanging out with friends, fishing, picking mushrooms, and swimming in the river there. Vahagn was a good student and especially strong at mathematics. He decided to go Yerevan State University to study computer science after high school. He remembers the first day of class was cancelled because of the nationwide protests during the Karabakh movement.
When the earthquake happened on December 7th, 1988, Vahagn was in a mathematical analysis class. It was his first semester of university. Everyone immediately stood up looking for the exit, but the lecturer made them sit back down to finish the exercise. No one knew what had happened. Vahagn would find out when he returned home and saw the devastation of the earthquake on the popular Soviet news channel, Vrema. The earthquake was the headline story. While watching the news, Vahagn made the decision to go to Gyumri to help with the rescue effort. He called up his childhood friends and planned to meet at the university the next day. They were pleasantly surprised to find that the university had already organized buses and equipment for students to go to Gyumri.
Vahagn and his friends arrived in Gyumri to find the city in ruins. He recounts getting off the bus and joining the rescue workers already there. They worked through the night in the bitter cold, taking breaks to lie on stones heated by small fires. Vahagn quietly retells how calm he was the moment when he found his first body. He would find many more. There was no water at the time, so in order to wash his hands, he used Pepsi-cola bought from a nearby store. Vahagn also remembers stores being looted, and facing the reality that he couldn’t stop all the looters. After three days of grueling rescue work in Gyumri, Vahagn went back to Yerevan to go to Stepanavan, his childhood home. On the way there, he saw the devastation of Spitak. There wasn’t a single building remaining. During the first few weeks after the earthquake, after seeing international rescue teams from Germany and France, Vahagn realized that Armenia needed a trained rescue service. A few days after returning to school, he found an opportunity to join one called Spitak, named after the town that was destroyed.
For the next few years Vahagn and other volunteers would participate in training scenarios in Germany, France, Austria, and the United States. They would perform maneuvers for the public, like cutting a car in half to rescue the person inside, and served as the official Soviet rescue team during disasters in Georgia and Iran. Vahagn also points out a picture of his dog Yuron, a German Shepard that he brought to Germany to train with. Though it was important for the organization to train volunteers, he says that Spitak’s ultimate goal was to support a federal agency dedicated to emergency situations. Today that organization exists as the Ministry of Emergency Situations. Vahagn likes to think he played a role in the agency’s creation.
Today, he laughs at the idea of imagining himself as a computer programmer. Electricity was scarce the next few years in Armenia. Of the 100 students that studied computer programming in his grade, maybe ten entered the profession. That time required a different commitment and he accepted the responsibility. His experiences after the earthquake shaped who he is today. Coincidentally, his oldest son graduated from the same university as he did, with a computer science degree, and now leads a start-up in Yerevan.
As our chat finishes, Vahagn points out that in the case of another earthquake, Armenia would need international assistance just like any other country would, even though there’s an agency devoted to emergency response. He stresses the importance of preparing ourselves and recognizing how to react in emergency situations, even ideas as simple as keeping a flashlight nearby during sleep. “It’s the small things that can save your life,” he says.
Vahagn Tonoyan has over 15 years of experience in emergency management, response, training design and delivery. On September 2002, Vahagn became Peace Corps Armenia’s Safety and Security Coordinator. Before that he worked for the Armenian Red Cross Society (ARCS) as Disaster Preparedness and Response Coordinator for Yerevan and the Central Region of Armenia.
Since 1989, Vahagn has been a member of the voluntarily rescue team “Spitak.” He has participated in several International trainings for rescuers. He also took part in several Rescue actions in Armenia, Russia, Georgia, Tajikistan, Ossetia and Karabakh.
Vahagn graduated from Yerevan State University, Department of Applied Mathematics in 1993 as a Mathematics-programmer.
He is married and has two sons.