A man who "sacrificed his own life" to save his two daughters and a 7-year-old niece from drowning is being hailed a hero by his whanau.
Kris Wichman, 36, was playing with young family members at the Patea River mouth in South Taranaki about 4pm on Friday when a ball was kicked across the river.
Wichman, an experienced surfer and fisherman, had swum out to retrieve it, but didn't know his daughters Izzy, 11, and Ava, 10, along with niece, Kiri-Tepaninga Himiona, 7, had followed him.
The youngsters got into difficulties in the strong river current.
Wichman grabbed his niece, and managed to usher his daughters back to the safety of the shore.
As a nephew, Chanze, tried to help, the current swept Wichman and Kiri-Tepaninga out to sea. The strong currents sent them almost 2km south towards the Whenuakura River.
Kiri-Tepaninga managed to swim ashore, but an exhausted Wichman got into difficulty in the surf.
Volunteer firefighters found him a short time later on the shore.
"He's effectively saved her life and sacrificed his own life," said Senior Sergeant Thomas McIntyre, who co-ordinated the rescue.
Wichman was unresponsive and firefighters began cardio-pulmonary resuscitation but were unable to revive him.
Last night younger brother James Wichman, 32, was devastated.
"In our eyes, he died a hero. That is how we will remember him," he said. "He was very experienced in the water. He loved it, he surfed it, he dived, played water polo ... he lived in it. I'm just so sorry that it was the water that took him."
Wichman's tangi will be held at Patea Pariroa Pa before he is buried on Tuesday.
Whanau members were last night gathering to pay their respects to a "real top Kiwi ... a humble Maori guy".
"He was a great man, a good father and a role model," James said.
"Kris was a guitar player, an adventurer. He did a lot of fishing, he was a builder, he did a lot of jobs. He was a jack of all trades and master of none, but always gave it a go."
Wichman, also father to Grace, who was not there on Friday, has five brothers and one sister. He grew up in Lower Hutt and attended St Bernard's College.
Patea, where his mother is from, was a "sanctuary" for Wichman, James said.
The whanau would miss him deeply, he said. "He was one of those guys who could get on with anybody. He would go sit by the quietest person in the room and make them feel more comfortable than the loudest guy."
The death was referred to the coroner, who released Wichman's body back to his grieving whanau yesterday afternoon.
Dale Te Kapua Aranga was last night devastated to lose one of his closest mates, who was due to be best man at his wedding.
The 28-year-old remembered Wichman as a "multitalented man" who was funny and entertaining.
"I'm going to miss him so much."
McIntyre said the tragedy again highlighted the dangers of the western coastline.
"It's very exposed, with big swells and rips, and it can be unpredictable at times.
"It's a dangerous place."
Wichman's distraught family members, gathered at Putoetoe Pa north of Patea yesterday, said they were thankful they would not be burying four family members.
"His bravery saved three other lives and he will be remembered for that," said family spokesman Rukutai Watene.
- Additional reporting Liz Wylie