Soaring temperatures coaxed thousands to Bondi this fateful Sunday in February, 1938. The sand and sea were dotted with bathers enjoying the day.
Shortly after 3 o'clock the turbulent seas suddenly became quiet. The soothing lull was presently succeeded by the swift sequence of half a dozen really big waves. These swept over the heads of the swimmers on the bank, frightening them and knocking many off their feet. As one wave surged high upon the beach the next would follow closely upon it. No interval between these permitted the water to recede and the waves became banked in a tremendous volume high above the tide mark.
Then, with the dwindling of the sea, the unnaturally retarded volume of water was released in a fearful backwash that carried all before it, an irresistable force that swept the sandbank clear and washed over 200 people into deep water.
Lifesavers carried 12 reels to the water and the beltmen raced into the sea in an instant. Their efforts to bring assistance to those swept farthest out were thwarted by the nearer panic stricken numbers who fought for their lives. Dozens gripped the lines. When the men on shore saw beltman after beltman submerged by the sheer weight of those who swarmed about them, the hauling signal was given.
Luckily, many Bondi clubmen were coming down to the beach en mass to compete in the regular Sunday afternoon club race. More than 70 of them followed the beltmen into the water, snatching up rubber floats from sunbakers to use as rescue equipment. The lifesavers swam from one panic stricken patient to another, guiding clutching hands to the floats and other lifelines. The men worked tirelessly, pushing, pulling, snatching back those heading seaward and fishing from the nearer depths those who had gone under.
Asher Hart, the club champion, ran his surf ski swiftly into the sea, but it quickly capsized. The upturned keel however provided support for patients flung across it while rescuers took stock of the situation and prepared to drag as many as possible ashore together.
There had been no precedent set in all the years of surfing for such an awful emergency. No patrolman had ever before seen the seas so crowded with people drowning. There was no time to ponder ways and means, for while men were thinking, people would be drowning. In that afternoon was reaped in fullest measure the harvest of the years of training. In spontaneous, automatic action, ensured by the tireless, long hours of drilling to which all had been subjected, the lifesavers carried out their duty.
The beach, within the space of a few minutes resembled a battleground. Prone bodies were everywhere. The unhurried, measured pumping that would give most of them life again went on continuously.
The final tally of dead was five - all men. No awards were ever made to individuals in connection with 'Black Sunday'. Individuals could not be singled out. The clubmen had functioned as a body, a strongly wielded unit.
"The lifesavers merely did their duty, just as the police and ambulance men did," Club Captain Jeppeson told the coroner at the inquest.
The coroner, however, was pleased to emphasize a distinction. Police and ambulance officers, he said, were paid to do their work. The lifesavers, on the other hand, were members of a voluntary organisation, and this lent more credit to the wonderful work they had performed, he added.
An American doctor, then visiting Australia, witnessed the terrible occurence and had helped with the work of resuscitation. He had the last say, addressing the coroner and the court: "This rescue business is a labour of love, the like of which the world cannot show anywhere else."