Kenwyne Jones received a straight red card in first half stoppage time for reacting angrily to a challenge from Herita Ilunga with his side 2-1 down at that point.
The big striker shoved the West Ham full-back to the ground leaving referee Andre Marriner no option but to hand him his marching orders.
Earlier in the game, Mexican striker Guillermo Franco had given the Hammers the lead before Carlton Cole continued his fine run of form by doubling the away side's advantage on 36 minutes.
The hosts were back in the game just three minutes later, however, as Andy Reid bent in a fine free-kick from the edge of the area as Sunderland began their comeback.
Jones' dismissal did little to stop the comeback as the home side emerged for the second-half with renewed urgency, performing much better than they did with eleven men.
The Black Cats bombarded the West Ham goal with wave after wave of attacks but it was not until the 76th minute that they equalised as Kieran Richardson volleyed home at the back post.
Sunderland looked the likelier team to grab a winner, and their cause was aided by the second booking awarded to West Ham midfielder Radoslav Kovac with three minutes remaining.
The home side could not find a winner, however, with striker Darren Bent having an off day in front of goal in particular.
The draw was no less than Steve Bruce's side deserved for a performance of real determination in an end-to-end second period and they might even had won it had leading scorer Bent taken one of the numerous chances that came his way.
Bent came close to marking his return from injury with a goal in the sixth minute.
Jones' deflected shot fell kindly for captain Lorik Cana in the left of the area and the Albania international picked out Bent with his cross, but the striker's header went wide of the right post.
The tenacious Cana was booked in the 11th minute for a foul on Mark Noble. Cana then left his mark on Franco with another thunderous challenge, but referee Andre Marriner deemed it fair.
OpenerThe visitors went ahead against the run of play in the 30th minute when Jack Collison ran on to a ball down the right channel and, having been correctly ruled onside, pulled it back for Franco, a summer signing from Villarreal, to side-foot home at the near post.
Gianfranco Zola's men almost made it two four minutes later but Craig Gordon athletically saved Cole's effort from inside the area.
The England man did score in the 36th minute, though, when his diagonal run was picked out by Collison's reverse ball and, after taking a touch, he slotted his finish past Gordon.
And it might have been worse for he hosts had Nyron Nosworthy not been given the benefit of the doubt when he looked like he might have brought down Cole as last man.
Valon Behrami was then booked for a foul on Steed Malbranque on the edge of the area, to the right of centre, and Reid took full advantage from the free-kick.
The Irishman curled it left-footed over the wall and into the near top corner to bring his side back into the match in the 38th minute.
But things got worse for Bruce's men when Jones was given a straight red in first-half stoppage time.
The striker was fouled by Ilunga and retaliated by pushing him in the chest and face with both hands.
Second periodFranco almost had a second two minutes after the restart when he met Noble's right-wing corner, but Gordon did well to save his downward header.
Robert Green then kept the visitors in front with two quickfire saves, first pushing Bent's low shot behind for a corner and then superbly parrying Michael Turner's header from the resulting set piece.
The 10 men were fired up and Bent should have levelled in the 51st minute.
The former Tottenham forward turned inside a defender in the right of the area, but as Green came out could only blaze his left-footed effort high and wide.
The Black Cats came desperately close in the 65th minute when Cana's header after a Reid corner came back off the crossbar and, from the rebound, Paula Da Silva's header was tipped on to the bar and behind by Green.
The momentum was with the hosts and Richardson pulled Sunderland level in the 76th minute.
Bent's cross from the right was deflected off Upson and looped high over the head of Green to the back post where the unmarked Richardson was on hand to help it home.
Cole then burst through the middle only to be denied by a last-ditch challenge from Nosworthy before he could shoot.
West Ham were reduced to 10 men in the 87th minute when Kovac was sent off, having picked up a second yellow for a foul on Bent.
The striker was handed a chance to win it moments later after running on to a long ball, but lashed his left-footed effort well wide.
The hosts then had Turner to thank after he cleared Noble's low shot off the line, while Bent just failed to connect at the back post with Jordan Henderson's hanging cross from the right as a thrilling contest ended all square.
SunderlandTeam StatisticsWest Ham United2Goals211st Half Goals27Shots on Target810Shots off Target74Blocked Shots27Corners312Fouls172Offsides03Yellow Cards21Red Cards175.3Passing Success71.234Tackles2276.5Tackles Success81.856.4Possession43.663.2Territorial Advantage36.8