DISTRAUGHT family and friends kept a grim vigil as a search for a missing swimmer was conducted off Suffolk Park Beach yesterday afternoon.
The man, an African-American and Suffolk Park resident aged 30, disappeared in the surf while swimming and was last seen in knee-deep water at 12.20pm.
When his two surfing companions, who were on their boards, next looked for him he was nowhere to be seen.
The two men became alarmed and ran out of the water to comb the beach and the parking area. When they found his towel and shoes on the beach and saw his bicycle still there they became seriously concerned.
A ranger driving on the beach was flagged down and asked to call Triple-0.
Surf lifesavers from along the coast rushed to the scene, with jet skis coming from north and south to search the water from Broken Head to Cosy Corner.
The Westpac Life Saver Rescue Helicopter swept back and forth along the coastline until lack of fuel forced it to return to Lismore.
Its pilot said the sea beyond the breakers had been clear enough to see stingrays, but there was no sign of the man.
After speaking to the ranger, his two friends went out on their boards to try to spot him, and a mate from Baywood Chase was called to take his jet ski out. He spent 90 minutes searching, to no avail.
An experienced surfer, he said he had rarely seen so much water moving along the beach as yesterday afternoon. The force of the current sweeping south out past Cocked Hat Rock was phenomenal and there were rips all along the beach, he said.
The spot where the man went missing, opposite Jarman Street in Suffolk Park, had a sizeable rip in it and is notoriously dangerous, according to rescue workers.
Police called off the search as darkness fell and were to resume it first thing this morning.
A female witness said she had seen the three go into the water ‘laughing and happy’.
Next thing she saw the two come up the beach with their boards ‘looking everywhere’ and asking her if she had seen their friend.
It is understood the missing man is from Chicago and had been living in Byron Bay for a year. He was not a strong swimmer and his friends had cautioned him to beware of the rips before they entered the water, the woman said.
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