A teenage girl caught in a rip had stopped breathing by the time lifeguards plucked her, limp and grey, from the sea.
Ashleigh Neal was walking in the estuary at Orewa on Wednesday just before 5pm with friend Casey Trumper, also 14, when they were hit by a wave and dragged out to sea.
Seeing the girls in trouble, two local boys, thought to be about 12, went out to help the girls. Minutes later, all four were in danger.
Casey and the two boys were picked up first, then Ashleigh was found face down in the water.
"They tried to walk across the estuary and were hit by a freak wave and that dragged them in the sea," said Ashleigh's mother, Tracey Dufton.
"I wouldn't normally let the kids swim at the beach by themselves but I was told it was the safest place to go.
"We went down to the beach to sit with them and we found their towels and shoes but couldn't see them ... We just had a blind panic and then heard the ambulance."
She has since pieced together exactly what happened.
"They got caught in a rip. Ashleigh said she was screaming for help, but the waves were hitting her in three different directions.
"One of the boys was trying to hold her up and then they started to panic.
"She remembers taking her last breath, praying, and then waking up on the beach. I was told when the lifeboat got to her, they pulled her out of the water, grey, with blue lips and she was totally unresponsive. The doctors at the hospital said if she had been in the water for another two minutes we'd have lost her.
"She had angels with her that day. Thank God for those lifeguards, they are absolutely amazing."
One of Ashleigh's rescuers, Orewa College student Travis Salahub, said it was a relief to know the teenager had pulled through, considering the condition she was in when he helped retrieve her from the water.
Travis, 16, and fellow lifeguard Nick Tomkins found Ashleigh after James Campbell had gone ahead on the all-terrain motorbike, swum out with a rescue tube and pulled in the other three.
"I spotted Ashleigh, lifeless and face down," Travis said. "I jumped out of the boat and grabbed her and flipped her over to clear the airway. Nick had spun around and grabbed her into the boat. I followed her in and we rushed her straight into shore, where the oxygen was on the bike.
"She was unresponsive in the boat. But she was foaming at the mouth, which showed she was trying to breathe - that was a good sign."
The lifeguards and bystanders carried her up the beach for oxygen, then an ambulance crew took over.
Travis said the rescue was the first serious incident he had encountered as a lifeguard at Orewa. "I'm really pleased that Ashleigh is okay. It makes me really proud of what I've done, protecting my beach."
How you can help save a life
The Surf Life Saving Summer Appeal runs until February 2, with a national street collection on Friday.
Representing 73 surf life saving clubs across the country, Surf Life Saving New Zealand has been patrolling our beaches since 1910.
"We need the public's support to raise money to help lifeguards save more lives," chief executive Paul Dalton said.
This season about 4000 volunteer lifeguards will spend over 200,000 hours watching over 80 beaches.
To donate text "SURF" to 933 for a $3 donation or online at www.surflifesaving.org.nz