When waterfront Tamaterau residents saw a helicopter hovering over the water on Monday afternoon, not many realised a life was hanging in the balance.
When a person was then lowered into the water of Whangārei Harbour from the chopper, many thought it was a training exercise - until the person resurfaced, carrying a limp body in their arms.
"I thought they were training and the next minute, they dropped the guy into the water, the guy from the helicopter," Tamaterau resident Michelle Sims-Handcock said.
"Then he pulled out the body, and my heart just dropped. I honestly thought he was dead."
Emergency services rushed to a Tamaterau Beach before 1pm when a member of the public reported to police having seen a man enter the water but not exit.
After being retrieved from the water, the man - described as tall, slim and wearing shorts, was airlifted to Whangārei Hospital in a critical condition. At edition time Monday, the man was in intensive care in a critical condition.
Sims-Handcock, who lives overlooking the water, said she saw the helicopter hovering between 200-400 metres from shore before the man was retrieved.
After heading down to the water's edge to see if she could help, Sims-Handcock was told how serious the situation was.
"I said to the [police officer], 'Is he alive', and he said, 'Barely'."
Police said they were supporting a woman who was on the shore at the time of the rescue, and was visibly upset.
Sims-Handcock believed this to be the man's partner with whom she spoke to. She said the partner was very upset.
Fellow Tamaterau resident George Kayryakov was driving into town about 10.30am and saw two people sitting on a rock near the beach where the man was found.
Coming back from town about midday, Kayryakov saw the couple again and believed they were the two people involved in Monday's incident. However, he said he did not see them enter the water and only learned of the incident when he saw an ambulance heading towards the shore.
Ramon Rudolph was parked with a friend near where the incident happened and said he heard a faint scream about 1pm. Assuming it was children messing around on a nearby walking track, he thought nothing of it until he saw emergency services arrive.
"That's the sad thing, when you sit here and think about it now, maybe if we had have just got out of the car walked over to the side, we would have seen what happened," he said.
"It's going to take quite a bit to process this, you go over, 'what if I had have got out' and things could have been different. It's just little things like that that's just going to get at me for a while."
Jane Kippenberger, who has lived in the area for almost four decades, said it was rare for such an incident to happen given the area's traditionally calm waters.
The callout for the Northland Rescue Helicopter added to what had been its busiest year in the service's 32-year history. As at December 7, there had been 1000 callouts - beating the previous record from 2018 of 999 callouts.