Normally, when thousands of people come to Buffalo for a special event, we like to welcome them to a city on the rise. Wednesday, we thank them for coming.
This is a city in mourning, and it buoys a sagging spirit to know that so many others care so deeply about the loss of Police Officer Craig E. Lehner.
It’s one of the mysteries of life that the burden of loss somehow becomes more bearable when others, even strangers, share in the sorrow. Someone can probably explain why that is so, but for the moment the why of it is unimportant. What matters is that thousands of people are coming from near and far to pay their respects to a police officer who was prematurely taken, and to soften a little the hard facts of a difficult day.
The entire community shares in the loss, but that pain is transitory. For most of the thousands who make it to Wednesday morning’s funeral at KeyBank Center or who take a moment to give thanks for Officer Lehner’s service, life will soon resume its normal patterns.
The greatest comfort today will be for the family of the fallen officer, who died in an underwater training accident on Oct. 13. For them, the patterns have been ruptured. With time and luck, they will heal, but the path forward will always be marked by an empty place they will have to learn to navigate. Today, the open-hearted support of those who attend or who line the procession route to Forest Lawn can help lift them onto that path.
Officer Lehner was a police diver and K-9 officer whose constant partner Shield, a 4-year-old German shepherd, showed his own anxiety as other officers worked frantically on that Friday to save their colleague and, ultimately – sorrowfully – to recover his body from the Niagara River. It took a fifth tormenting day of searching before Officer Lehner was found.
The officer had been training in the fast-moving river when something tragic, but as yet unknown, happened. Officer Lehner was tethered to officers on land and, because of that, they could tell at some point that he had stopped moving. He was training in water about 25 feet deep and his desperate colleagues couldn’t bring him to the surface. Other divers jumped into the river, but couldn’t locate him. Team members tried to send an emergency air tank down the tender cable, but it wouldn’t sink in the swift-moving river.
At just 34 years old, Craig Lehner was gone. He had arms full of tattoos, a shock of hair that looked like it had been electrified and, judging from photos, a grin that was about irresistible. And he wore a badge.
Family, friends and strangers will gather Wednesday to say goodbye and they will find a city blazed in blue mourning. Among those leading the community’s response are Terry and Kim Pegula, owners of the Buffalo Sabres, who are absorbing all costs of using KeyBank Center for the funeral, including providing a video feed so those who are not in the arena can observe the service. One Buffalo, indeed.
Soon it will be over, and the thousands who attended will make their way back to their homes and their daily routines, perhaps more aware of how precious they are and how quickly everything can slip away. That’s true for all of us, but it is especially so for police officers, for whom even training poses hazards that have suddenly become painfully obvious.
The community thanks the officers who traveled here today, as it does everyone who made it their duty to help a wounded city grieve.