Geordie boy Shola Ameobi denied Sunderland a first league double over their arch-rivals in 42 years as Newcastle hit back to snatch a point in front of owner Mike Ashley.
Ameobi drilled home a 68th-minute penalty to cancel out Djibril Cisse's first-half strike as both sides emerged from a rip-roaring derby with something to show for their efforts.
However, the visitors were more than aggrieved at referee Howard Webb's decision to award the spot-kick for Steed Malbranque's challenge on Steven Taylor.
Cisse had put them in front 12 minutes before the break as they enjoyed the better of the first half, although the Magpies responded well after half-time and were well worth a point which did little to ease their relegation fears, but at least kept them out of the bottom three.
That will have come as some comfort to manager Joe Kinnear on a day when Shay Given and Charles N'Zogbia closed in on moves away from Tyneside.
He will hope a positive result in arguably the most important game of the season will give his depleted side fresh impetus for the trials which lie ahead.
A sell-out crowd of 52,084 on both sides left St James' wondering just what might have been, but at least able to go for work tomorrow morning with heads held high.
Ashley returned to Gallowgate for the first time since facing a furious fans' backlash in the wake of Kevin Keegan's departure in September, perhaps safe in the knowledge that the Toon Army were in no mood to air their dirty linen in front of the old enemy.
It also gave him a chance to survey the wreckage of a dream which has gone spectacularly wrong.
By the time the whistle sounded to bring an and to a tense first half, the repercussions, if they had not already dawned on him, were becoming ever more apparent.
Cisse's 33rd-minute strike handed the visitors a lead they just about deserved after making much of the running on an afternoon when old scores and current difficulties were both very much on the agenda.
Ricky Sbragia's men would have taken the lead with 20 minutes gone had Kieran Richardson's free-kick not come back off the post and had debutant Kevin Nolan not cleared Kenwyne Jones' follow-up off the line.
Two minutes later, Andy Carroll looped a header on to Marton Fulop's crossbar, but as Ameobi, a surprise inclusion after five games out with a knee injury, struggled to make the most of a series of half-chances, the pressure mounted.
Ameobi passed up a glorious opportunity when he fired high over after a good link-up down the right between Taylor and Damien Duff with 27 minutes gone, and Cisse took advantage when his chance arrived six minutes later.
He just about managed to hold his run to collect Dean Whitehead's through ball and, after Harper had blocked his initial effort, stab the rebound into the empty net.
The air of doom and gloom which has engulfed St James' for much of the season returned with a vengeance, although Carroll almost lifted it four minutes before the break when he blasted a left-footed shot inches wide.
With Jones and Cisse causing all kinds of problems for the home defence, the game had developed into something of a white-knuckle ride, although the Magpies returned knowing they had to commit men to the search for an equaliser if they were to escape with their dignity and their hopes of top-flight survival intact.
The resumed with a flurry as Nolan forced Fulop into a regulation save and George McCartney cleared an Ameobi header off his own line before Danny Collins got in a vital challenge on the striker before he could convert Jose Enrique's 52nd-minute pass.
Duff was rightly booked for diving in the box as Anton Ferdinand withdrew his foot in the challenge, but Newcastle were finally making their presence felt as Sunderland retreated and tried to hit them on the counter.
The visitors briefly managed to stem the tide, but they were pegged back with 68 minutes gone after Malbranque was adjudged to have felled Taylor inside the box.
Ameobi took charge of the spot-kick and blasted it high to Fulop's left to send the Tyneside contingent into raptures.
Sunderland's response was swift an concerted, Sebastien Bassong having to block Jones' 73rd-minute effort and Harper saving substitute Andy Reid's follow-up as the balance shifted once again.
Reid smashed a left-foot missile inches wide with the last kick of the game, but neither side was able to find a winner in a flurry of activity at the death and the final whistle brought warm applause from both sets of supporters.Reuse content