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An outdoor education instructor and two students he tried to save were lost in rough seas off Taranaki last night.
The two teenage boys, one a Brazilian exchange student, were in a group of 11 from New Plymouth's Spotswood College climbing Paritutu Rock at Back Beach.
The pair and another boy slipped and fell about 10m into 2m swells.
Inspector Frank Grant said one of the trio clung to rocks and waited to be winched out by the Taranaki Rescue Community Helicopter.
The other two were swept out to sea, as was one of the two male instructors with the group, who jumped in after them.
Mr Grant praised the instructor for leaping into the water to rescue the students.
"It was very brave - potentially sacrificing his own life to save others," he said.
"There's no greater calling than that."
The families of the missing were all distraught and were comforting one another.
"They're coping with it in different ways," Mr Grant said.
"Some have been angry, upset. Some are more concerned than others. But no doubt they're all hurting."
The helicopter crew helped to rescue the rest of the group off the rockface.
Police, search and rescue members, a port pilot boat, a commercial fishing boat, three surf lifesaving inflatable rescue boats and the Coastguard helicopter were involved in the search, which continued until darkness fell.
It was to resume at 7am today. The police dive squad and air force staff will be brought in to help.
The students were with instructors from the Regional Outdoor Education Centre of Taranaki. Spotswood College principal Mark Bowden told the Herald the centre had a "proud history" of working with Taranaki schools for 25 years.
Surf Lifesaving Taranaki spokesman Andy Cronin was in the helicopter and helped to lift the remaining students and instructor off the rockface .
The teenagers were scared and cold and some were wet from the sea, but almost all remained calm.
"That made them relatively easy to winch off."
The group was about 10m up from the waves, which were 2m to 3m high, Mr Cronin said. They were wearing outdoor clothing and all had helmets on.
"They appeared to be dressed for their rock-climbing activity."
It had been too loud in the helicopter to talk to the students and work out what had gone wrong, he said.
Mr Cronin said that in his 10 years with surf lifesaving, he had never had to rescue anyone who had fallen into the water while rock-climbing.
"It's a pretty rare situation."
The two missing students and instructor last night faced a near-freezing low and a rough swell.
"It's pretty cold and there's showers coming through every now and again ... It's not ideal," Mr Cronin said.
The community rallied together yesterday in the search for the missing trio.
"It's a real tragedy what's happened, but you really see the best in people come through in the worst of situations," Mr Cronin said.
The chief executive of Outdoors NZ, Garth Dawson, said the organisation would be working closely with the Regional Outdoor Education Centre and the authorities to "establish what lies behind today's events, to support those involved and make sure that any lessons are learned and improvements made".
University student Jimmy Hick went to the beach when he heard the news about the missing high school students.
"It was drizzly, squally weather and there were cop cars blocking the car park."
He could see a group of distraught people and he spoke to two men who thought the missing instructor was a friend of theirs.By Amelia Wade Email Amelia, Harry Pearl