An Auckland man who died trying to save his drowning friend in Rarotonga was a "true gentleman" who would do anything to help others, those who knew him have said.
A dream island wedding turned to tragedy for two Kiwi families on Wednesday after both the mother of the bride and a family friend who went to save her drowned, the day before the ceremony.
Instead, guests and locals gathered yesterday for a simple service to say goodbye to Auckland nurse Judith Lorraine Palmer, 62, and her would-be rescuer, Robert Groves, 64.
The pair were neighbours and friends in Birkenhead on the North Shore. Both leave behind widows who now face the grim task of returning their bodies home to New Zealand.
Palmer's daughter Vanessa Palmer, a triathlete and PE teacher on the island, was due to wed her groom yesterday. The wedding has now been put off as the family reels from the deaths.
Judith Palmer's husband John Palmer is a chief inspector with the police force in Auckland.
Auckland City Police district commander Superintendent Mike Clement said: "I know personally that the trip to Rarotonga for Vanessa's wedding was to be the highlight of the year for John and Judy and that much planning and anticipation surrounded it."
John and Judy Palmer had been married for 42 years, he said.
"We are all reeling from the news and can only imagine the magnitude of the devastation John, his family and the Groves family are feeling."
Groves worked at Nuralite Waterproofing systems in Onehunga. His wife, like Judy Palmer, is a registered nurse.
Nuralite said the company learned of his death with sadness.
"Rob was a true gentleman who, over the past 40 years in the waterproofing industry, built a strong reputation based on integrity, practical knowledge and personal service," managing director John Simmons said.
"The fact that he died trying to rescue his neighbour is the ultimate testament to his commitment to helping others."
Both couples were staying in Vaimaanga, in the south-west corner of Rarotonga
The area is notorious for drownings and disappearances. At the time of the drownings the area was hit by strong winds and swell, and guests at the resorts had been warned not to go swimming or kayaking.
"It is a turbulent passage in the right conditions," publisher of the Cook Islands News John Woods said yesterday.
Woods believed as many as eight people may have died in the passage in the last decade.
"It is notoriously dangerous, and there are signs there."
With the swell and the tides, a lot of water would have flooded into the lagoon.
Woods said Rarotonga would feel the deaths sharply as the couple were on the island for the wedding and Vanessa was well-known.
"She is a real personality on the island. A really great athlete, you see her on the road everyday, and she really shares her knowledge," he said.
- Auckland Now