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Rescuers tried desperately to reach a boy who was snatched by a large wave at a Napier beach but were beaten back by huge waves.
The 9-year-old boy drowned today after being swept out to sea as he played in the surf at Te Awa, Napier.
Two young police constables also entered the water and managed to reach the child.
The trio were all swept away before being plucked from the water by a rescue helicopter but the boy could not be revived.
A witness who watched the tragedy unfold said other would-be rescuers who tried to reach the boy were beaten back by the "horrendously huge" waves.
"They were crashing them back into shore. They just couldn't get out there," Haumoana resident Erin Marsh said.
"It made you want to jump in to try and help, but you know you shouldn't.
"It was the most horrendous feeling standing there knowing that people need help but you physically cannot do anything to help."
Police received a report of a person struggling in the water off Marine Parade about 3.42pm.
It is understood that person is a 9-year-old boy who was among a group who were swept out to sea from the water's edge beside a freedom camping ground.
Police were at the scene. Coastguard and the Hawke's Bay Rescue Helicopter also responded.
Police Area Commander Inspector Marty James told Stuff it appeared the group was playing in the surf when the child was swept out.
The sea is rough today. Large waves can be seen crashing onto the beach.
Police were alerted after someone in a camp area called emergency services. Two officers, who were both trained lifesavers, a 27-year-old man and a 30-year-old woman, tried to reach the boy.
"They were able to reach him and get hold of him," James said.
"They stayed with him while Coastguard and the rescue helicopter were deployed. The three of them continued to be swept out. Unfortunately the child is deceased."
The helicopter lifted the trio from the water. St John Ambulance staff arrived but the child could not be revived.
Police thanked members of the public for alerting emergency services to the incident.
"Our thoughts are with his family and friends during this tragic time."
Marsh, who was in Te Awa to drop her husband off at work with her 7-year-old child, said she saw a bunch of police cars fly passed and a lot of people standing on the beach.
"We could see the people floating a couple of kilometres off shore in the ocean. The chopper came over.
"We saw two people who looked like they were part of the police get out of the helicopter, but you can see a couple of people getting plucked out the water."
It was devastating to watch the tragedy play out, she said.
"There were two guys with the floating things surf life savers us, who jumped into the water and started swimming out to get to the people.
"But the waves were so horrendously huge..."