MINUTES felt like hours as Lennox Head surfer Jock Barnes worked to save the lives of four men who were drowning in the Richmond River on Saturday.
Mr Barnes, 29, has been praised for single-handedly saving three of the swimmers, but it's the life he couldn't save that now preys on his mind.
The four Korean Nationals got into trouble around 4.30pm in an area known as The Spit near the Missingham Bridge.
Mr Barnes was teaching with Kool Katz Surf School nearby when he heard screams and saw three men drowning between the walls of the Richmond River.
"These guys literally could not swim. They couldn't even dog paddle," he said.
Mr Barnes managed to drag two of the drowning men onto his board before realising a third swimmer was already under water.
"So I had to swim down and grab him by the hand and haul him back up onto the board," he explained.
When the group reached the shore Mr Barnes realised with horror that another man was still missing.
The police were called and a search commenced utilising the Ballina Jet Boat Rescue vessel and the Westpac Life Saver Rescue Helicopter.
Jet Boat captain Mark Puglisi said poor visibility made the search difficult.
"... the water was murky so it was difficult to do the search," he said.
Around 40 minutes later a helicopter crewman pulled the man's body from the water and he was transported to shore via the rescue boat.
Crews on shore performed CPR but the man was unable to be revived.
Mr Barnes said the three survivors watched as a sheet was laid over the man's body.
"It was a hard afternoon for everyone on the beach but I can only imagine how horrific their loss must be," he said.
Life Saving Far North Coast director Ben Redman said the tragedy is a reminder to swim under supervision.
"It's a tragic event and I can't stress enough to swim between the flags."
Mr Barnes said he didn't want to be called a hero.
"If I wasn't there, there would have been four deaths not one," he said.
"It's such an unnecessary tragedy," Mr Barnes said.
Police from the Richmond Local Area Command are preparing a report for the coroner and inquiries are continuing.