Officer Craig E. Lehner was alone in the Niagara River during an underwater recovery team training session Friday when he went missing, according to police sources.
He was attached to a tender cable as another team member on the Bird Island pier at the foot of West Ferry Street held the line and walked along the pier as Lehner moved in water about 25 feet deep.
Suddenly Lehner stopped moving. The "diver tenders" on the shore– other team members – knew something had gone wrong. They worked quickly to manipulate the cable and tried to bring him to the surface.
Two divers then went into water to find Lehner. In the low visibility and strong currents, they were unable to locate the 34-year-old officer. His body was recovered Tuesday afternoon floating farther north in the river.
Team members also sent a reserve air tank down on the tender line, but the river's current, moving at about 10 to 12 mph, prevented the tank from sinking to Lehner.
Several questions confront investigators:
- How did the line become hung up?
- Did the officer become entangled in debris littering the riverbed, preventing him from swimming to the surface?
- Was the line cut or broken, allowing the officer to drift north?
- Did Lehner hit his head on an object?
- Did his breathing apparatus somehow become dislodged from his mouth?
These are among the questions homicide detectives hope to answer.
An autopsy was being conducted Wednesday and police have Lehner's wet suit and diving equipment. They hope the autopsy and diving gear will provide some answers, but police say they may never know all of the answers.
"We're investigating the accident and we have a lot of questions, but at this time we do not have a lot of answers," Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda said Wednesday.
A Coast Guard response boat that was the first search vessel to respond to the scene Friday just after 1 p.m. found the tender cable that had been attached to the officer in the river by the pier. The crew also discovered the emergency air tank floating in the water. The Coast Guard assisted but is not investigating the accident because it did not involve a boating accident.
Police officials said they plan to meet with Lehner's family later today to assist them in making funeral arrangements.
Shield, Lehner's K-9 dog, is being evaluated to determine whether he will go to another partner or be given up for adoption.