The teacher killed in the canyoning tragedy in the central North Island yesterday had tried to save a student by carrying them on his back, a friend says.

Elim Christian College teacher Tony McClean, 29, was killed along with six college students when they were washed away by torrential waters in the Mangatepopo Stream near Tongariro National Park.

A friend of Mr McClean, who would only identify herself as Helen, said he was the type of person anyone in that kind of strife would want to be there.

"He's so well trained, he's so strong," she told Newstalk ZB.

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"Apparently he had a child they tell us on his back, as did the instructor have a child on her back, as they were trying to get out with the kids."

There has been debate today about whether the party should have made their journey given heavy rain in the area but she said Mr McClean would not have made the journey if he thought there was a serious danger.

"Everybody wants to place blame often in a situation like this," she said.

"I just wanted to say on behalf of Tony's family and friends that he would never have put anybody in a situation he truly believed was dangerous ever."

Helen said it had been a tough 24 hours for family and friends as they were at first told Mr McLean was safe.

"We got a call last night to hear the news that students were missing but initially we were actually told Tony was safe and that he was just devastated.

"At 3.45am we got a call from his brother's girlfriend to say `come round to their parents' place immediately, he's not with us anymore, he's gone to heaven'."

She said family and friends had spent the day at EC Church in Botany Downs, Mr McClean's church which is near Elim College, praying and keeping each other comforted.

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- NZPA