A Kiwi woman tried to wrestle her childhood friend from the grip of a crocodile as she screamed in pain, only to watch the reptile drag her away.
Former Hamilton woman Leeann Mitchell, 47, was last night in an Australian hospital being treated for shock as emergency services scoured north Queensland waterways for her fellow ex-Kiwi Cindy Waldron, 46.
The pair went to primary school together in Hamilton but each lived in different parts of Australia.
The pair were swimming at Thornton Beach, in the Daintree Rainforest - 112km north of where Ms Mitchell lived at Trinity Beach in Cairns - about 10pm on Sunday when they felt a nudge.
Then Ms Waldron screamed: "A croc has got me!"
Ms Mitchell tried in vain to drag her friend away. Ms Waldron has not been seen since.
Ms Mitchell's cousin Alan Frost, who lives in Stratford, told the Herald she was unhurt but in shock. She was recovering in the nearby Mossman Hospital.
"She has got good friends around her," Mr Frost said.
"Leeann is a really good person, she has some really good support around her." He said Ms Mitchell, who was unmarried and did not have children, had recently undergone chemotherapy for cancer.
"Leeann's been living there for many years, she really loves it."
Ms Waldron had been living in Australia for 18 years. She had recently moved to Lithgow, in New South Wales, from Leura, a suburb in the Blue Mountains.
She worked as a photographer and had her own business, Instinctive Images. On her website, she wrote:
"I've had a love of photography from my teenage years, so it was only natural that after years of being employed in photographic fields, I started my own business ... I've found that taking photos for others is not only a privilege, but very satisfying.
"All the hours of photography and digital imaging are worth it when I present the newlywed couples, first time parents and extended families with their crafted images. The looks on their faces tell me that they will be family treasures for years to come."
In February, she wrote about moving her studio to a new town after 10 years.
A Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade spokesman said the department had been liaising with the New Zealand-based family of the missing woman and seeking information from Australian authorities on their behalf.
It is understood Ms Waldron's parents live in the Bay of Plenty.
Thornton Beach is a known spot for crocodiles, and there have been fatal attacks near the beach previously.
Australian authorities have been conducting a huge land, air and water search for Ms Waldron. Queensland Ambulance Service spokesman Neil Noble said he understood the women felt a nudge before Ms Waldron was dragged under water by the crocodile.
Warren Entsch, who represents the area in the Australian Parliament, said the beach was beside a creek where tourism operators run crocodile-spotting tours.
Mr Entsch said the two tourists had to have seen plentiful crocodile warning signs in the region.
"If you go in swimming at 10 o'clock at night, you're going to get consumed," he said.
The case has echoes of a fatal croc attack at the nearby Barratt Creek just before Christmas in 1985. Beryl Wruck, 43, was taken by a 5m croc as she took a late-night dip in the shallows of the creek after an evening of dancing and drinking with friends.
More recently, 5-year-old Jeremy Doble died when he was attacked by a 4.3m crocodile in a swamp also near Thornton Beach in February 2009. His 7-year-old brother told police he saw a croc in the water moments after the boy disappeared.
- additional reporting AP