When she saw her little girl alive and well, after fearing she had drowned, Ali Wharehinga thought she was looking at a ghost.
"When she walked past me I thought I was seeing an apparition," Ms Wharehinga said.
Riqueal Wharehinga, 11, sparked four hours of panic yesterday after she went missing while swimming in Gisborne yesterday.
Her family told police she had gone for a swim at The Cut at the mouth of the Turanganui River and had not returned.
The ECT rescue helicopter, the Lion Foundation Coastguard boat, and dozens of surf lifeguards from the Waikanae and Midway clubs with IRBs, on-boards and skis, searched for more than three hours in the waters around the rivermouth but found no sign of her.
"Everything pointed to a probable drowning and we were carrying out what we expected to be a body recovery operation," said search coordinator Sergeant Greg Lexmond.
"Even her family had come to the realisation that we were dealing with a worst case scenario."
The distraught family had been preparing for a family karakia on the beach when the girl walked towards them at around 7.30pm.
Ms Wharehinga said: "We are so very lucky to still have her with us. It could have been the worst outcome."
She said she held her daughter very close. "She told us she had gone off further up the beach towards Midway with a friend and they had been swimming. She had no idea at all that the search she could see happening was for her.
"She saw the helicopter and actually waved out to it at one stage. The lesson is always tell an adult where you are going."
Sergeant Lexmond said it was a great happy ending to what seemed like a tragedy.
"A lot of resources were poured into it but we had to react that way because it certainly seemed like a potential drowning.
"We are overjoyed, like her family is, that she is OK, but I am sure she has some explaining to do to her family."
- Gisborne Herald