Teacher's actions described as heroic

Teacher Tony McClean prayed with each pupil before sending them into the swollen Mangatepopo River, then tied the last teenager - a disabled boy his mother helped bring to New Zealand for a better life - to his own body and let go.

The last selfless act to try to save the life of Tom Hsu (16) has many calling the 29-year-old a hero.

The New Zealand Herald has learned rescuers believe it may have contributed to his death, privately saying Mr McClean's chance of survival would have been much greater if he had gone alone.

His father, John McClean, said police told him his son's body was found still bound to the teenager.

He said Tom, who had cerebral palsy, was ''a natural one'' for Tony to have tried to help.

''When the police lady told me that, I thought 'That's him','' Mr McClean said of his eldest child.

Five other Elim Christian College pupils died on the gorge trip. Four pupils and Sir Edmund Hillary Outdoor Pursuit Centre instructor Jodie Sullivan survived.

A surfer and musician who was a youth pastor and tried to live the words of Gandhi, Mr McClean was committed to loving and serving other people in his life - and in his death.

A special bond had already formed between his mother Jeanette and international pupil Tom.

As ''camp mum'' to Elim's overseas pupils, Mrs McClean had pushed Tom's case to the school, despite uncertain arrangements for funding of care he would need.

Mr McClean said Tom, the only son of two Taiwanese teachers, flourished in the nurturing environment.

So when we heard it was [Tom Tony tied to him], we were quite glad.

''In the most traumatic moment of his life, in fact the last moment of his life, he's still doing and saying exactly what he was doing and saying the previous Saturday and the previous week.''

Mr McClean said Tony's body was witness to his struggle to save his own life and Tom's.

''I wanted to see that there was a bit of grit on his face and he'd had a battle,'' he said.

''After I had seen him, I texted my kids . . . I said he wasn't disfigured but he looked like he had been through a pretty tough rugby match.

''I was proud of him. I looked at him and I knew he had struggled. He would have struggled for those kids, struggled for his own life.''

It emerged that while on the ledge, Tony rallied the pupils, encouraging them with prayers and talk of hot showers, before sending them off to the waiting instructor at pre-arranged intervals.

The instructor went first with a pupil, followed by Kish Proctor, a 15-year-old who survived.

Tony and Tom were the last to leave the rocky ledge and were ultimately washed over the dam and down the flooded river.

In a heartfelt letter to the McClean family, survivor Ashley Smith, wrote of how Mr McClean gave comfort during the ordeal.

''Being terrified of water, I was freaking out, but he held me and said, `Don't worry Ash, you can do this. I know you can, because I will be praying for you'. And, right then, everyone gathered around me, hugged me and prayed,'' she wrote.

''I want you to know [Tony] McClean was such a special and unique person. I will never forget him.''

It is one of the hundreds of tributes the family received this week.

Older brother to Paul (26), Daniel (23), and Hannah (15), Tony McClean went to Auckland Grammar and was a prefect in his final year.

He completed bachelor of arts and bachelor of theology degrees at the University of Auckland and trained as a teacher.

After graduating, he worked at St Thomas School in Kohimarama, Farm Cove Intermediate in Pakuranga and this year joined Elim Christian College.

Interspersed between the work was a season snowboarding in Canada in 2006 and travel last year to work with needy in Nepal and India.

Mr McClean sen, a pastor at Eastview Baptist Church in Howick, said travel crystallised his son's view of the need to live out Christianity, rather than just talking about it.

He said he was doing that in his work at Elim, as well as inspiring younger friends to follow in his footsteps.

When asked if he thought his son was a hero, Mr McClean said he thought he ''was normal''.

Immensely proud of his son, he believed a few heroes emerged, including the instructor, Miss Sullivan.