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Search for missing Buffalo police diver resumes

They came from Alden, Rochester and Ontario. They came from as far away as New York City.

It was an international all-hands-on-deck effort to find Police Officer Craig E. Lehner, missing since Friday in the swift, dark currents of the Niagara River.

But despite the efforts of dozens of officers and underwater divers from at least 20 different departments, there was no sign of the 34-year old Buffalo officer as of nightfall Saturday. The divers suspended their part of the in-water search about 7 p.m., but have resumed their efforts Sunday morning.

“The search will continue until we find our officer,” Buffalo Police Lt. Jeff Rinaldo said on Saturday.

Rinaldo gave an update on the search effort on Sunday morning.

He said the search is moving northward toward the International Bridge where the water is calmer, the current is slower and there is less debris in the water.

There is a wind advisory in effect today, and Rinaldo said officials are keeping a close on the weather conditions, and "safety is the utmost concern."

He said the searchers are working with heavy hearts and minds, but the strength of Lehner's family "is incredible ... and that's what's driving us. They are extremely strong."

Saturday’s daybreak to after-dusk effort took many different forms:
• Search crews used sonar equipment and robotic vehicles with cameras to comb the river bottom.
• Divers, in pairs of two, conducted searches in grid-patterns between the start of the breakwall at Broderick Park to the International Bridge.
• Cadaver dogs were led to the stern of search boats in an attempt to narrow down an area by scent where Lehner might be.
• The Erie County Sheriff’s Air One helicopter searched from above.
• High-tech U.S. Navy-grade sonar used by the New York Police Department was flown to Buffalo by the State Police Aviation Unit.

Divers search Saturday, Oct. 14, 2017, for Buffalo Police Officer Craig Lehner who disappeared during scuba diving training Friday in the Niagara River. Buffalo Police divers are in the water at Broderick Park not far from the shoreline. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

“I’d like to take this opportunity to thank multiple, multiple agencies that have offered support from across the Northeast as well as Canada,” Rinaldo said.

NYPD divers came to Buffalo to help in the search, as did the entire underwater unit from the Rochester Police.

Rinaldo said Rochester's familiarity with swift water conditions from its location on the Genesee River made it uniquely suited to help on the Niagara.

“Rochester is trained in these conditions,” Rinaldo said. “So, we’re comfortable they know what they’re doing to assist us.”

Lines of police divers, apparent only by a “diver-down” flag buoy drifting along at the surface of the river, provided a glimpse as to how exhaustive the search was.

And how dangerous.

“This is a very, very dangerous section of the river,” Rinaldo said. “There’s an enormous amount of debris. Literally, full-sized trees, cars, shopping carts, boulders, construction debris – just 100 years worth of stuff winding up in the river.”

Lehner, a police diver and full-time K-9 Unit officer, entered the Niagara River near the foot of West Ferry Street with other officers during a Friday morning training exercise but never made it out.

What happened?

“We can’t speculate until potentially we are able to locate the diver,” Rinaldo said.

At first the hope was for a rescue in what became a nearly eight-hour search Friday. When it resumed Saturday, it had to be considered a recovery effort.

It seemed as though the search could be concluding about 3 p.m. Assembled media were hastily corralled from a spot near the river’s edge at Broderick Park back across the West Ferry Street bridge.

Sonar information appeared to show police might have narrowed down on a specific spot in the river near the foot of West Ferry Street.

“It’s super-complicated because there’s just so much stuff in the water – so much debris – that it’s like looking at a sonogram picture,” Rinaldo said.

Rinaldo added that the sonar images are just interpretations of what might be at the river’s bottom.

“They looked at some city camera footage that was captured (Friday) during the rescue attempt and we’re just making some good estimations on an area where they believe the diver could be at this point,” Rinaldo said.

Rinaldo said divers don upward of “40 to 80 pounds” of additional equipment when they go in the water. That just adds to the challenge.

Rinaldo was flanked Saturday by Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown and District Attorney John Flynn.

“Our hearts are certainly hurting,” Brown said, “but we continue to be prayerful as the search continues.”

Lehner, a 9-year veteran of the Buffalo Police, served in the Army National Guard with deployments to Iraq and the U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. He is not married.

Flynn said he spoke to Lehner’s sister, who said of the large-scale search effort: “This is Buffalo at its best.”

Added Rinaldo: “We didn’t have to make one call for assistance. It’s heartwarming and makes us proud to be law enforcement.”

News Staff Reporter Lou Michel contributed to this report.

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