Weather halts search for Buffalo police diver; nothing found after report of wetsuit floating near shore - The Buffalo News

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Weather halts search for Buffalo police diver; nothing found after report of wetsuit floating near shore

From the start, the quest to find Buffalo Police diver Craig Lehner was full of obstacles and headaches.

That continued into the evening Sunday, after stormy weather led searchers to call off the official recovery effort for the day. Then, a motorist on the Niagara Parkway reported seeing what appeared to be a wetsuit floating in the Niagara River about 30 yards from the Canadian shore.

The location was roughly across from the Rich Marine Sales on the U.S. side, just north and downriver of the island where Officer Craig Lehner disappeared.

A fireboat from Fort Erie was dispatched to located the object, but the U.S. Coast Guard later said nothing was found and the search would resume Monday.

It was one more twist from the Niagara River and its infamous currents, believed to be among the fastest of any freshwater river in the country.

And then there are the underwater dangers: the tree trunks, debris and boulders the size of cars that greeted divers as they searched for Lehner.

And earlier on Sunday there came one more hurdle — a storm with rain and high winds that halted the three-day search in mid-afternoon.

“The focus now," Buffalo Police Lt. Jeff Rinaldo said Sunday afternoon, “is to bring our brother home, and bring closure, first and foremost, to his family.”

"Reality is reality," Rinaldo said, "and unfortunately the chances of him surviving are nonexistent.”

The search for Lehner, 34, a nine-year veteran of the force and a full-time K-9 officer, began Friday afternoon after he failed to surface from a training exercise with Buffalo's Underwater Recovery Team at the foot of West Ferry Street.

The U.S. Coast Guard says a cable connecting Lehner to his diving crew broke, leaving him stranded alone underwater.

[PHOTO GALLERY: Day 3: Search for missing Buffalo Police diver]

From early Friday afternoon, when the search began, police officers, on duty and off duty, gathered along the shoreline at the foot of West Ferry. On Sunday, the gathering included Deputy Police Commissioner Kimberly L. Beaty, one of Lehner's former supervisors.

“If I could have had 100 Craigs, I could have gone to sleep at night," Beaty said. "You knew, with his partner, the job was being done right. He was an awesome person. Everything he did he was dedicated to.”

Beaty said she spoke to Lehner's mother Sunday and told her, '"Your son is a wonderful young man, and a handsome one, too. His personality and looks just fit the job.”

A diver is transported along the Niagara River as officials resumed the search for BPD Craig Lehner off of Broderick Park in Buffalo on Sunday. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

The effort to find Lehner continued Sunday and, for a time, conditions on the Niagara River proved accommodating.

But when the National Weather Service weighed in with a forecast that predicted showers and winds of up to 36 miles an hour by 4 p.m., police officials began to plan for an early end to the search.

Rinaldo acknowledged that the high winds could affect both divers and search-and-rescue boats equipped with sonar.

"The safety for everyone involved in this is our utmost concern, and we won't jeopardize that," he told reporters.

The search was suspended at 3:22 p.m.

Sean Kirst: A police dog runs to the river, in fierce loyalty to missing officer

As he often has over the past three days, Rinaldo spoke of his fellow police officers and the constant presence of off-duty officers at the scene.

He also acknowledged for the first time that Lehner's search is no longer a rescue effort, and admitted it was an obvious, but emotionally difficult, decision to make.

"Unfortunately, we know no one can survive underwater for this long," he said.

Despite that realization, everyone involved in the search effort remains motivated, fueled in large part by a collective need to find their comrade, he said.

"Everybody has heavy hearts and minds, but we have a job to do and we are just hoping to locate our brother," Rinaldo said. "That's the focus, that's what's getting people through the day and to continue doing what they're doing. There'll be a time later for emotions, but we're doing the best we can to keep moving, keep pushing, keep progressing."

Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda has remained in close touch with Lehner's family and friends, and Mayor Byron W. Brown and District Attorney John J. Flynn visited the family Sunday and again thanked first responders for their continued effort.

"We remain hopeful," Brown said Sunday. "We remain prayerful."

Buffalo's Underwater Recovery Team: What does it do?

Day Three of the search also brought a change in strategy that included moving it downriver toward Black Rock.

"We are going north with our search toward the International Railway Bridge, and even north of that," Rinaldo said earlier Sunday. "The good thing for us is that the further north we get from this point the calmer the water gets, the current slows down and the debris field pulls away."

Lehner's fellow divers had been looking in the swift, 25-foot waters off Bird Island Pier, in Broderick Park. The new search area should help speed up the search and help the sonar instruments be more effective, Rinaldo said.

By 3 p.m. Sunday, divers had covered a new area of the river extending from the foot of West Ferry north to the International Railway Bridge. The move downriver eliminated some of the divers' obstacles, most notably the large amount of debris in the river.

Rinaldo said the Niagara's currents, which he described as the fastest of any freshwater river in the country, remained a problem and made finding a body like "throwing a bowling ball down Delaware Avenue at 30 miles per hour and trying to hit a pin."

Search for missing Buffalo police diver resumes

In its third day, the search effort continued to add manpower and equipment. The New York Police Department arrived Saturday with a stronger sonar device that can reach 60-foot depths, Rinaldo said.

A diver's secondary dive tanks had been discovered on the surface of the water Saturday, but they didn't belong to the missing Buffalo police diver.

The search continues at 7 a.m. Monday.

News staff reporter Dale Anderson contributed to this report. This is a developing story. Return to BuffaloNews.com for updates throughout the day.

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