A woman felt like she was looking into the eyes of a dead man as she struggled to save two men from drowning in a swimming spot near Pelorus Bridge.
Blenheim woman Libbie Tautari's friend, Nathan Devaraj, had got into trouble and panicked even more when another friend, Craig Mackle, tried to help him.
Miss Tautari, who was on shore with four children and a 20-year-old, looked up to see the pair struggling in the water on Saturday.
She swam out to help but was caught in a desperate fight for survival.
Mr Devaraj grabbed her arm and pulled her down about four times.
"Every time we bobbed up I could see my kids on the rocks just looking at us," Miss Tautari said.
After about two minutes of struggling, she broke free of Mr Devaraj's grip and was able to grab Mr Mackle and try to pull him toward the rocks.
She could not help Mr Devaraj, but could see his face.
"That look . . . was really intense. I thought, ‘oh my God, I'm going to have to let you drown', because we couldn't do anything."
Although she is not religious, she asked God for help as the three of them struggled to stay afloat.
"I was looking into the eyes of a dead man and I think Nathan realised that too and there's nothing we could have done."
Both Mr Mackle and Miss Tautari do not remember exactly how they reached the safety of a rock.
At some point Mr Mackle managed to hook his arm under Mr Devaraj and use his other arm to swim, but they would only go so far before being pulled under again.
He said: "I remember just pushing and pushing at his back, and Libbie must have been up the front."
The friends are members of three families who had been enjoying a hot day near the Pelorus Bridge Campground on Saturday when they decided to take the children swimming.
They went to a little-known swimming spot about 2 kilometres from Pelorus Bridge towards Nelson.
Mr Devaraj was not a strong swimmer and was a little worried about the depth of the water.
"It was good and then suddenly everything just goes numb and I can't breathe."
Mr Devaraj does not remember anything after going under for the first time.
After the rescue Miss Tautari said she kept looking at Mr Devaraj to make sure he was OK. "He saw his baby and he started crying. That just about set us all off."
Mr Devaraj's wife, Shan Kalymutu, said she would be eternally grateful for the actions of both Miss Tautari and Mr Mackle.
"If you are not here, my husband is not here today," she said. "I have got no siblings; he is my only family. So I am thanking them sincerely, from my daughter as well." Fairfax NZ
- © Fairfax NZ News
View obituaries from around the region
View births, marriages and celebrations from around the region
Nelsonians in pursuit of London pride
Page and Blackmore Readers and Writers Festival