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The 41-year-old South Korean man was with his wife and 8-year-old son at a popular river rockslide pool near Gisborne when his son and another boy got into trouble.
The man jumped in to the river to rescue the boys, thought to be cousins, who had been sliding down the Rere rockslide - a tourist attraction on the Wharekopae River, 50km north-west of Gisborne.
While he managed to push the two boys to safety, he disappeared under the water. His body was recovered by members of the dive squad shortly after 12am.
Police are yet to identify the dead man.
A couple who lived about 1km from the rockslide spot provided shelter to the traumatised family during the search for the dead man's body.
The woman, who declined to be named, said another man from the group arrived at her home about 3pm seeking help.
‘‘He arrived at our place to say that a family member was missing and my husband just went up there ... to assist to see if we could find him."
Emergency services were called, and later the grieving family were brought back to their home while the search carried on, she said.
She understood the man who first sought help was the 41-year-old's brother-in-law, and father of the other boy pushed to safety in the rescue.
The two families had been on their way north when they decided to stop at the rockslide, she said.
‘‘It was obviously a family day out, they'd been to Eastwoodhill, they were coming up here and heading home to Tauranga and it ended up in tragedy.
‘‘We just invited the family back to our place to use it as a base and look after them and care for them as the family member was found," the woman said.
While communication with the families was limited due to a language barrier, the woman said the wife of the man who died was extremely proud of her late husband's actions.
‘‘I think they came to the conclusion after a period of time, when he hadn't resurfaced, that he would have passed.
‘‘In his wife's mind, he was brave because he saved their son. They were just proud of him that they were able to save his son," she said.
The woman understood the wife lived in Tauranga, and her husband worked overseas.
Police said the group had stopped at the rockslide after reading about it on the internet.
‘‘The man's wife was extremely traumatised. They were all extremely upset," search co-ordinator Sergeant Greg Lexmond said.
‘‘He was located in the pool at the bottom of the slide, in about 4 to 5 metres of water."
Mr Lexmond said the river level was not considered extreme at the time of the incident.
- By Teuila Fuatai of APNZ with the Gisborne Herald