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Search for missing diver suspended and could continue Sunday

Buffalo Police K-9 officer Craig Lehner with his dog Shield.

The effort to locate missing Buffalo Police diver Craig E. Lehner in the Niagara River off Broderick Park has been suspended and will continue tomorrow weather permitting, Buffalo Police said.

Authorities said they believe they know the area of the river that diver Craig Lehner is located in.

"We're pretty confident of the area where he might have been snagged or caught up in," said Buffalo Police Lt. Jeff Rinaldo.

When asked at the evening press conference how long the search might last, Rinaldo said, "The search will continue until we find our officer."

Divers, in pairs of two, are conducting search patterns on the river bottom. Search teams are using "robotic vehicles with cameras" to try and find the missing officer. The Air One helicopter from the sheriff's office is up in the air.

Rinaldo said the divers found a river full of full grown trees and boulders the size of cars, not to mention the fast Niagara currents.

Cadaver search dogs brought in from the state Federation of Rescue Teams are also being used on the shore and on boats in the hope that they can provide clues and narrow the area where the officer went missing.

"At this point, it is a search-and-rescue mission," Rinaldo said at a briefing for the media Saturday morning at Broderick Park.

In addition to the agencies on the scene now, a piece of "extremely sophisticated sonar technology" that normally is used by the U.S. Navy is being flown to Buffalo from the New York Police Department by a State Police Aviation Unit to assist in the search, Rinaldo said.

Rinaldo said the all-hands-on-deck effort is designed to "narrow down an area to search for our officer."

He said that search remains concentrated in an area from the start of the breakwall to the International Bridge.

Lehner went into the Niagara River at the foot of West Ferry Street during a training exercise Friday but did not come out. The search for Lehner, a 34-year-old police diver and full-time K-9 Unit officer, started at about 12:50 p.m. Friday and stretched until 9 p.m., with portable flood lights on the shore. Four rescue boats equipped with sonar conducted a grid search in the swift waters off Broderick Park, and underwater robots scoured the river's bottom.

Then, Saturday morning, the search continued shortly after daybreak.

Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown and District Attorney John Flynn joined Rinaldo at Broderick Park to address the media Saturday morning.

"Our hearts are certainly hurting this morning," Brown said, "but we continue to be prayerful as the search continues."

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

Flynn said the agencies from outside of Buffalo – including federal, state, county and local first responders, and even some from Canada – who are helping in the search effort are a testament to the support the Buffalo Police Department has.

"These are dedicated men and women who want to help," Flynn said.

"We didn't have to make one call for assistance," Rinaldo added of the search. " It's heartwarming and makes us proud to be law enforcement."

Rinaldo said the search includes an unprecedented number of law enforcement agencies, twenty in all, including divers from New York City.

Flynn said he spoke to Lehner's sister who said that the massive search effort reflects "Buffalo at its best."

Rochester sent a team to help in the search. According to Rinaldo, the team members have experience training in the murky waters of the Genesee River.

Before the identity of the officer was released Friday night, several police sources provided The Buffalo News with his name, explaining that his family members had been notified and some were at the scene, keeping vigil.

Lehner's fellow divers repeatedly searched the 25-foot deep water off Bird Island Pier, but they were called to shore at dusk to avoid the possibility of more tragedy.

A section of a nautical chart of the Niagara River shows the varying depths of the water in the area the Underwater Recovery Team was practicing in. (NOAA Office of Coast Survey)

"Unfortunately, this is a very, very dangerous section to dive in," said Rinaldo, who would not speculate on what might have gone wrong Friday morning. "The water moves anywhere from 12 to 15 knots, and under the water here there was a number of serious … obstacles, debris, downed trees, rocks, shopping carts, cars, over the years things found themselves in the water right there.

"This is the fastest fresh water, I believe in the country and Canada as well" Rinaldo told reporters

"It is extremely dangerous, and that's why our team trains for these situations."

Rinaldo said divers don upward of "40 to 80 pounds" of additional equipment when they dive. That just adds to the challenge.

Other police explained that the team trains there because practicing in the swift currents enables them to be prepared for hazardous missions.

Visibility beneath the water, Rinaldo said, was "somewhat decent," about 10 feet, at the time the team was training.

First responders from about 15 agencies, including from Canada, were taking part in the search.

Even Shield, Lehner's 4-year-old German shepherd K-9 Unit partner, was at the scene for a short time. Lehner named the dog Shield last year in honor of Buffalo Police Officer James A. Shields, 36, who was killed in the line of duty in October 2002 when his patrol vehicle crashed into a tree on Delaware Avenue while he was responding to a robbery call.

Lehner, who is not married, joined the police department in 2008 and served in the Army National Guard with deployments to Iraq and the U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.

Town of Hamburg Rescue 1 was back on the water early Saturday, looking for missing police diver Craig E. Lehner. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Fellow officers said Lehner is well-liked — and devoted to his job.

Asked how local police were coping with this tragedy happening to one of their own, Rinaldo said: "We're a family. As you saw, every uniform, from here to Rochester, was offering assistance. We've pulled together. We have a job to do right now. … There will be time for emotions after we get our job done."

The 14-member Underwater Recovery Team, Rinaldo said, conducts monthly practices in the waters off the foot of West Ferry, and Friday was one of those practices.

The U.S. Coast Guard, which provided a 45-foot response boat to the search effort, said crews discovered the diver's tender cable had parted, according to a news release from the Coast Guard's Great Lakes district. A Coast Guard helicopter from Detroit also aided in the search along with the Air One helicopter from the Erie County Sheriff's Office and another from the U.S. Border Patrol.

The Coast Guard also reported a diver's secondary dive tanks were discovered on the surface of the river, but Rinaldo told reporters the tanks were not connected to the missing Buffalo police diver.

At about 4:15 p.m., police sources told The News teams searching the waters off the Bird Island pier found a glove of the type worn by members of the dive team. A Buffalo police photographer took pictures of it before it was taken from the water.

City of Tonawanda Police Capt. Fredric Foels, whose department provided one of the sonar search boats, said the waters off the park move at 10 to 12 mph.

"They are doing the best they can out there, but along the shore I'm sure there are a lot of heavy hearts," said Foels, as he watched the search efforts from the park.

"It's in God's hands," said Buffalo Police Chaplain Bilal Abdullah. "We hope for something positive."

Search and rescue crews scour the Niagara River near Broderick Park at the foot of West Ferry Street where a Buffalo Police diver went missing during training exercises Friday. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

The Buffalo Fire Department deployed crews to various spots downstream along the Niagara River to keep a lookout for a body in the water, according to department radio traffic.

The Grand Island Fire Department was also deployed to maintain a lookout at River Oaks Marina. And one of that department's boats was providing sonar assistance off Broderick Park.

"I would estimate there are a dozen to 15 agencies assisting us all the way up to Grand Island and on the other side of the border," said Michael J. DeGeorge, spokesman for the Buffalo Police Department and Mayor Byron W. Brown, who visited the scene.

Divers from departments around the area, including the City of Tonawanda and Hamburg, also assisted in the search.

Before the day turned tragic, Steven Chamberlain said he and a companion had arrived at the park in the late morning.

"We showed up here around 11 a.m. when the divers were just going into the water," Chamberlain said. "We were here to go fishing, and we moved along because we didn't want to get in the way of the dive team."

Chamberlain and his fellow angler returned after noticing a number of emergency vehicles in the area.

"When we came back, we just learned one of the divers was missing," Chamberlain said. "I asked a Border Patrol officer what happened. He told me one of the diver's rope broke."

Harold McNeil contributed to this report.

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