In the eyes of her family and friends, teenager Taiana Pilitati died a hero.

The 18-year-old from Wellington drowned in Samoa this week while desperately trying to save her 8-year-old sister Vaiola after they became caught by a large wave while swimming in a river.

"She's a hero. She gave her life [up] for Vaiola," her uncle Pati Umaga told the Weekend Herald. "Vaiola will grow up knowing that her sister saved her life."

Taiana - known as Tai - travelled to the island nation on Wednesday with her mother Pula'au Pilitati, four sisters and other relatives for the unveiling of a headstone for a late aunt.


The teen was excited about going on the trip - her first time to her motherland.

But, less than 24 hours later tragedy struck while the family group were swimming in the Vaisigano River; which runs through the main island of Upolu.

Tai was among a group of young people who were enjoying themselves with her uncle Daniel Umaga - also from Wellington - when the calm water suddenly changed. Her mother watched helplessly as the drama unfolded.

Pati Umaga, speaking from the family's home in Wainuiomata yesterday, said his brother Daniel saw a "sudden change in the water".

"He just grabbed his granddaughter [aged 7] because he said he just sensed something - that the water was changing.

"Then the water started to churn, like it was swirling. He looked up and just saw this wave coming towards them. They couldn't do anything or yell out [because] they didn't see it until the last minute."

As Daniel Umaga fought to get his granddaughter to safety, another relative grabbed the other two children - aged 12 and 14 - while Tai and her sisters fought to get back to the riverbank, while distraught relatives on land watched, unable to do anything to help.

Tai's mother, who remains in Samoa, was too distraught to talk about the loss of her daughter.


Choking back tears, Pati Umaga described Tai's final act of bravery.

"They said Tai was holding on to Vaiola when they were swept away - she was trying to help Vaiola. At the last minute she threw Vaiola towards Tino [an older sister], as she went under.

"Tino and Vaiola made it back, but not Tai."

Several family members were taken to Moto'otua Hospital but were quickly discharged, while members of the public spotted and retrieved Tai's body down river soon after.

Yesterday dozens of tributes were beginning to come in as extended family members, friends and the wider community heard the news.

Tai is a second cousin of former All Black captain Tana Umaga and is also a cousin of All Black Ne'emia Tialata, who is related to Tai's late father.

Tialata, based in France, wrote on his Twitter page: "So sad and gutted to hear. RIP my [little] cousin Taiana ... I just hope my aunty and the girls get thru these tough times."

A spokeswoman for Tana Umaga said he did not wish to comment.

Pati Umaga said the family were gathering to organise not a sad event for her funeral, but a celebration of her life.

He described his niece, who is a former student of Wainuiomata High School, as a loving, witty and talented young woman who loved music and drama.

She took part in last year's school production: Horseplay.

"We're just in shock to be honest," Pati Umaga said.

"I dropped them off at the airport and she was joking around, excited as anything to be going to Samoa for the first time.

"We had a video camera that we gave them to film the unveiling for people who weren't going and Tai was the camera operator," he said.

"She was goofing around and making jokes - that's my last memory of her."