ONE rugby player drowned and another five are still missing after they went for a swim in the sea following a weekend training session on a beach on South Africa's east coast
A small group of players is thought to have initially entered the water on Sunday lunchtime but after they got into trouble in a strong rip tide, the rest of the squad went in to help.
Lifeguards told how they then battled to save a total of 21 people who were caught up in the current, bringing 15 to safety on their backs and in inflatable boat and kayaks.
One man who was pulled out of the water died on the beach while others were treated for shock. Police divers were on Monday still searching for another five players who are now presumed dead.
The incident represents the single biggest loss of life by drowning in South Africa for decades.
All of the victims, and most of those rescued, were members of Port Elizabeth's semi-professional Motherwell Rugby Football Club, and were training to take part in a nationwide tournament in Cape Town on Easter Weekend.
Mncedisi Mazomba, the team's manager, said that the men often went into the sea to cool off after spending hours running up and down the Bluewater Bay sand dunes as part of their training.
He said that most members of the team were in the showers when a woman raised the alarm that those who had gone into the sea were in trouble.
"We immediately went to alert the lifesavers and were told that the rescue boat could not be dispatched because it was apparently deflated," he said.
"That's when our guys stepped in and tried to rescue their team-mates themselves, but they were also drawn in by the strong current and were washed away."
Brendon Helm, one of the lifesavers on duty on Sunday, told how he and his colleagues nearly drowned rescuing as many people as they could.
"It is something I will always remember," he told local paper Die Burger.
"Only eight of us and 21 desperate people with wide open eyes begging to come out. Some of us took out two or three at a time and almost got into trouble ourselves."
In emotional scenes on the beach as the tragedy unfolded, one player was heard sobbing: "He was so close to me. I could have saved him. I could have saved his life. How am I supposed to feel about that?"
On Monday rescue boats and police divers were joined by a search helicopter and a police dog unit to search the coast for those missing.
Bluewater Bay is a popular swimming beach and, according to locals, has not seen a drowning for the past 43 years.
Craig Lambinon, of the National Sea Rescue Institute, said South Africa rarely experienced multiple drowning deaths. "It's been decades since we've seen this number of fatalities in one incident," he said.
Coastal Water Rescue coordinator John Fletcher blamed "terrible weather" for what happened.
"There was a massive current and the water was just too rough," he said.
"We called off our search when police divers arrived on the scene."
Lifesaver Mr Helm said they all knew about the current but it was not usually dangerous. "As long as you remain calm, keep your head above water and try not to swallow too much water, it will take you and leave you a bit further on," he said.
"But unfortunately it didn't happen like that this time. It was hell." Eastern Province Rugby chief executive Anele Pamba said the province's rugby fraternity had been dealt a blow with the loss of emerging talent.
"This is such a huge blow to local rugby. I just can't explain how tough this is right now," he told Die Burger.