The man who saved Oscar winner Michael Hopkins' wife from the river said the rafters were extremely unlucky to have been caught in a flash flood.
If they had launched their dinghy just half an hour earlier, they would have been safe, river contractor Bruce Slater said. Half an hour later, and they would have seen the river was too high.
Instead they were snared in a 50kmh torrent in the Waiohine Gorge, with crushing 5-foot waves.
Mr Slater, of Greytown, sped to the rescue of Nicci Hopkins in his jet boat when he heard their inflatable raft had flipped but it was too late to save her husband, who had already drowned.
"They were really unlucky.
"If they'd been half an hour earlier, they would have been clear of the gorge."
By the time he and son Andrew reached Mrs Hopkins, she had been in the river for two hours, clinging to a ledge in a narrow part of the gorge that was too dangerous to be reached by police or rescue helicopter. Mr Slater was able to spin his jet boat into a small eddy and nose forward enough for Andrew to pull Mrs Hopkins in.
Senior Sergeant Carolyn Watson, of Wairarapa, said the Slaters were heroes.
"There was a point where we decided it was too dangerous . . . but he [Mr Slater] made a choice and went in and rescued her.
"What he did was pretty bloody heroic."
Mr Slater, who monitors the river every day, said the water level rose rapidly while the party was in the water. "It shot up 2-3 metres and the flow - which would've been 10 cubic metres - shot up to 300 cubic metres. So that's huge volume.
"The water was probably doing 30-50kmh.
He was at home, about 300m from the river, when he got a call from a friend, saying the police needed help with their search. He rejected suggestions he was a hero, saying he was just happy to help.
- The Dominion Post