Some sat on the sand holding their heads in their hands in disbelief. Others comforted their emotional friends with an embrace or an arm around a slumped shoulder.
The friends of a university student who died in treacherous seas off Fairy Meadow, four kilometres north of Wollongong, yesterday morning were grieving for his loss after they tried desperately to save him, lifeguards said.
George Matchett, 22, from Grenfell, was pronounced dead by paramedics about 9.15am as his friends watched.
Wollongong police Chief Inspector Graeme Donnelly said the young man had left the University of Wollongong's Campus East and headed to Fairy Meadow Beach for a surf with two friends just after 8am.
But, before hitting the waves, the men decided to test the conditions, swimming straight into strong rip currents and big seas.
"In the water, two of the gentlemen got into trouble," Inspector Donnelly said.
"One of them has been able to get himself to safety and ... noticed that his male friend couldn't get out of the water; he's then disappeared."
The friend raised the alarm and police, ambulance and surf lifesaving crews rushed to help.
Before help could arrive, another group of friends arrived for a surf, heard what was going on and entered the water to help, Inspector Donnelly said.
After several minutes, the group spotted Mr Matchett, who had been swept 400 metres south of the surf club.
"During the search some young gentlemen have found the young male out the back [of the waves] ... they've done what they can to assist in keeping him alive," Inspector Donnelly said.
A short time later, Wollongong City Council lifeguards arrived by jet-ski and brought the unconscious student to shore.
Council recreation services manager Mark Bond said lifeguards began CPR and used a defibrillator in a bid to revive Mr Matchett until ambulance paramedics arrived, took over the resuscitation effort and brought in extra personnel by helicopter.
However, after more than 40 minutes, Mr Matchett was pronounced dead.
Grief-stricken friends gathered nearby.
Inspector Donnelly said the rescuers who risked their lives to save a mate had done everything they could.
"The lifeguards here have actually commended the young fellows in the water and we'll be dealing with them through the offer of counselling," he said.
Yesterday, a University of Wollongong spokesman said the university would offer counselling to any students or staff affected by Mr Matchett's death.
He confirmed Mr Matchett was a second-year student who lived at Campus East.
Mr Bond appealed to beachgoers always to swim between the flags, at patrolled beaches.