Three young people tried desperately to find their friend after watching him dive into a swollen river, surface then disappear.
Police have since warned of the dangers of swimming in flooded rivers after Jesse Barber, 19, drowned in Wairarapa's Ruamahanga River on Monday.
Family spokesman Rob Barber said they were distraught. "We're just glad we've got him back. We can get on with what we need to get on with. It's been a hell of a time."
The river was about half a metre higher than normal after heavy rain in the Tararua Range when the group entered a relatively calm area of the popular "double bridges" swimming hole, 10 minutes' drive north of Masterton in the Opaki area.
"They were swimming away from the rapids, it was a judgment call and . . . relatively safe," Wairarapa Acting Area Commander Scott Miller said.
"Towards the end Jesse has decided to dive into the rapid area, we don't know why, and that's where he's got into trouble."
After a search on Monday evening, a police dive squad found his submerged body yesterday in the area where he disappeared.
Barber, a former pupil of Wairarapa's Rathkeale College, was a machine operator at the Juken timber mill near Masterton.
He was a "great kid and far too young to be lost to us", mill manager Paul Jordan said.
"He stood out to me because he was so young but very diligent . . . he was really making inroads."
Miller said although the group knew the river well, swimming in flooded rivers was risky.
"It's a spot a lot of people in Wairarapa go to but it was just completely changed in nature by the force of the water . . . not only above the [surface] but below it."
Meanwhile, police efforts to recover the body of the man swept into Wellington Harbour on Sunday evening will continue today.
A search of the shoreline from the Hutt River to Pencarrow Head by the Wellington police launch Lady Elizabeth did not find any trace of the man.
He was attempting to gather fishing nets from the swollen Hutt River mouth in Seaview when he fell overboard. He was not wearing a lifejacket.
Senior Constable Dave Martin said a dive squad may be used today to aid the search.
Water Safety chief executive Matt Claridge said people should always check weather conditions when swimming and avoid rivers and rivermouths if it had been raining.
"If in doubt, it's best to stay out."
- The Dominion Post