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The accident happened about 3pm yesterday afternoon at the bottom of the Rere rockslide, a tourist attraction on the Wharekopae River, 50km north-west of Gisborne.
"The 40-year-old man, his wife and their two children, with another young relative, were holidaying in Gisborne," said search co-ordinator Sergeant Greg Lexmond.
"They went to the slide after reading about the attraction on the internet.
"The children wanted to experience it," he said.
Two of the children, under the age of 10, had gone down the slide and got into trouble in the deep pool at the bottom.
"Their father jumped in and managed to push them both back to the safety of the bank. But then he disappeared under the water," Sgt Lexmond said.
"He disappeared immediately and went straight under."
Other people at the rockslide used a cellphone to raise the alarm and went to a nearby farmhouse to get help.
"The man's wife was extremely traumatised. They all were extremely upset, as you can imagine."
Police called out the ECT rescue helicopter at 3.30pm.
"The helicopter searched the river for a period of time without success and then returned to Gisborne," a helicopter spokesman said.
"Police SAR members searched the area on the ground but found no trace of the missing man and the national police dive squad was called in," Sgt Lexmond said.
The dive team were unable to get to Gisborne by air.
"They flew to Napier and came the rest of the way by road," he said.
The team arrived on site at about midnight and immediately started their search.
"They found the body of the missing man after searching for about 10 minutes.
"He was located in the pool at the bottom of the slide, in about 4 to 5 metres of water."
The body was recovered and taken to the Gisborne Hospital mortuary.
A post-mortem examination was to be conducted to determine the exact cause of death.
The fire service sent their command vehicle to the scene.
They set up lighting on the riverbank to assist with the search.
Police have praised the actions of farmers who supported the man's family.
"A consulate official is coming to Gisborne today to support the man's family, who are being cared for by Victim Support," Sgt Lexmond said.
The river level over the water slide was not considered extreme at the time of the tragedy.
"The flow of water over the slide was not abnormal but obviously the children and the family were not prepared for how deep the plunge was at the bottom."
The name of the dead man has not been released at this stage.
- Gisborne Herald