Three men have died after being swept into the ocean by a large wave that pulled a group of people into the surf.
The crowd was standing on rocks near a popular fishing area known as Hill 60 in Port Kembla, south of Wollongong, when they were knocked into the water just after 10pm on Friday, NSW Police said.
Authorities said on Friday night three people had been confirmed dead, with emergency services continuing a search of the area for any other people who may be in the water on Saturday.
A police search with rescue helicopters and local lifeguards were deployed in the search on Friday evening.
The men have not been formally identified, but police believe two of them, aged 45 and 49, are from Green Valley.
The other is believed to be a 69-year-old from Campsie.
As inquiries continue, police are appealing for anyone who may have witnessed the incident to contact Lake Illawarra police or Crime Stoppers.
“[This is] a timely warning to everybody, the location that people do fish on these outcrops where it is very close to the sea and on a point or headland,” Assistant Superintendent Gordon Dunlop said, according to ABC News.
“Unfortunately the weather does change [and] sometimes the waves can become quite dangerous for those on the surface of the rocks.”
Tragedy sparks warning to Australians
Australians are being urged to plan for visiting the beach like they would for a road trip amid an alarming spike in people drowning while trying to rescue others.
Five people have died in bystander rescue drownings since December 1, according to Surf Live Saving Australia - a figure normally expected over a 12-month period.
They include a woman in her 20s who swam out with several others to rescue a teenage girl struggling in the water at Venus Bay, near Melbourne, last week.
She got into difficulty before being pulled from the water by an off-duty lifeguard. Everyone else made it safely back, including the teenager.
NSW police officer Kelly Foster, 39, died on January 2 in the Blue Mountains after attempting to rescue another canyoner from a whirlpool at Mount Wilson.
The canyoner, 24-year-old software engineer Jennifer Qi, also died.
"We're starting to see more of it," SLSA general manager coastal safety Shane Daw said.
"We've got people doing amazing things, heroic things, going to the aid of others ... but sadly, they're becoming a statistic."
Covid-19 partly to blame
Part of the reason behind this summer's spike in cases is geographical.
Australians unable to travel overseas because of the Covid-19 pandemic have been flocking to the beach and going off the beaten track.
More than 90 per cent of this summer's drowning deaths have been at unpatrolled locations.
"That's an alarming factor - with our vast coastline, people are seeking a little bit of privacy and to get away from the crowds but by doing so, they're putting themselves at risk," Mr Daw says.
Another issue is the generally laidback attitude most Aussies have towards going to the beach.
"If you're going to go camping or go on a road trip, you'd always have a bit of a plan - you make sure you've got enough petrol and you're taking all your things," Mr Daw says.
While more research is needed to better understand the phenomenon, SLSA's figures lay bare the tragic impact of rescue drownings.
Some 70 per cent of fatal incidents involved people trying to rescue their own family members, usually children.
"It's a heroic effort, and we can't say enough good things about these people trying to actually save someone else's life," Mr Daw said.
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