A Hamilton father has spoken of the heartbreaking choice he had to make when he discovered two people struggling in the powerful surf at Hot Water Beach, one of whom later drowned.
Family named the drowned man on social media yesterday as Hiva Lavaka, described by his boss at Alexandra Park raceway as a "beautiful man".
Carl Brunton was one of those who tried to save the 24-year-old Alexandra Park bar manager, after hearing screams for help at the Coromandel beach late yesterday afternoon.
Four people were in trouble, and the lifeguard patrol had ended for the day. A group of teenage Surf Life Saving New Zealand lifeguards were waiting for their rides home in a nearby carpark, and soon came to help.
But Mr Brunton, a 42-year-old contractor, didn't think twice before running into the pounding east coast surf.
"I heard them screaming for help ... I had to help, I had to try and do something."
Two were clinging to a "play surfboard" and two more -- Mr Lavaka and his Alexandra Park colleague -- were struggling helplessly in the water.
Grabbing a stranger's boogie board, he reached Mr Lavaka first.
"He was exhausted but he grabbed the board. Everybody [in the water said] 'save the girl' so I grabbed her hand and swam her back in. It didn't take long, only four waves ... a couple of minutes."
He turned back for Mr Lavaka.
"I saw him floating next to the board I gave him ... that wasn't the best feeling. I thought he was all right [when I left him]."
The off-duty lifeguards had arrived and brought Mr Lavaka to shore, where they tried to resuscitate him. He couldn't be saved and a second person -- was flown by Auckland Westpac Rescue Helicopter to Middlemore Hospital in a serious condition.
A Counties Manukau District Health Board spokeswoman yesterday said that person was now stable and in a ward. Two others were taken by ambulance to Thames Hospital in moderate conditions, but a Waikato District Health Board spokeswoman wasn't able to find a record of them today.
Mr Brunton was focussing on his successful rescue, and knowing he had done the best he could.
"I'm happy I saved a life."
Mr Lavaka's family couldn't be contacted but racing journalist Duane Ranger, who worked with Mr Lavaka at Alexandra Park, described him as "mini-Jesus".
"He just had that real wonderful aura, shine about him. I'm proud my kids are Tongan because if they could be like him, they're going straight to heaven."
Alexandra Park chief executive Dominique Dowding said staff were devastated. Mr Lavaka had worked at Alexandra Park for seven years, and his mother, Vaine, was a fellow employee.
"He had a beautiful way about him, everybody loved him. We used to call him our wingman, because he would always be there when you needed him."