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After five days of searching for police diver, 'we brought our brother home'

[UPDATE: Police sources say that Craig Lehner was alone in the water when his tender cable became hung up. Click here to read the latest news.]

They vowed to bring their brother home.

And, after five long days of searching the relentless Niagara River, the body of missing Buffalo Police diver Craig E. Lehner was finally found. Police made an official announcement just after 3 p.m. Tuesday.

A procession began an hour later to bring his body from the foot of Porter Avenue to Erie County Medical Center. Police, firefighters and citizens lined the 7-mile route along the Niagara Thruway, Scajaquada Expressway and Kensington Expressway to pay their respects. Buffalo firefighters at the traffic circle on Porter Avenue saluted as the procession passed.

As the solemn cortege wound its way through Buffalo, police gave a briefing on the recovery efforts.

"It's a very tragic event, but thankfully we were able to bring our officer back," said Buffalo Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda at the news conference.

Before sunset on Monday, a boat equipped with sonar spotted an image in the river between the International Railway Bridge and Strawberry Island, but it was too late to attempt a dive at the scene.

Members of the Buffalo Police Underwater Recovery Team returned to that area Tuesday and located Lehner's body at about 1:25 p.m. about 160 feet off shore, near Acqua Restaurant on Niagara Street.

Det. Leo McGrath, commander of the URT, spotted Lehner's body floating in the water. McGrath was aboard the team's boat when he made the discovery. Lehner was in his wet suit and his air tanks were still strapped to him, police said.

Police said that the discovery was heartbreaking, but there was satisfaction in knowing it was the team commander who found his lost diver.

Lehner's body was brought aboard the team's boat and an American flag was placed over him.

Because of rough conditions on the river, the 34-year-old K-9 officer's remains were transported at about 2 p.m. through the Black Rock Channel. His body was then taken to a rowing facility launch near Porter Avenue and placed into a waiting black minivan.

Many police officers lined up, stood at attention, and saluted their fallen comrade as his remains were placed into the van for transport to ECMC.

"Thank God we were able to bring our officer home. This is a very difficult time for the members of the Buffalo Police Department," Derenda said Tuesday evening. "We ask that you keep Officer Lehner, his family and fellow officers in your thoughts and prayers."

Late Monday afternoon, there had been a promising sonar hit right off the Bird Island pier, where the officer went missing Friday, but it turned out to be a tree stump on the river bottom.

There were also a number of other sonar hits north of the International Railway Bridge and dives were conducted there as well, but the search was halted at sundown Monday and the area marked off to return to on Tuesday. It was in those waters that McGrath spotted Lehner.

"I think everybody on the Underwater Recovery Team should be extremely proud of themselves," said Lt. Jeff Rinaldo, a police department spokesman. "They conducted themselves as true, absolute professionals."

Police and firefighters lined up along the wind-swept riverbank to meet the vessel that brought Lehner to shore.

Joining them was Mayor Byron W. Brown, who called Lehner's death a "painful loss" for the officer's family, Buffalo police and the city.

The mayor also offered his condolences in a statement: "I join with all City of Buffalo residents in mourning the loss of this outstanding public servant. My thoughts and prayers are with his loved ones, including his mother, as well as the Buffalo Police Underwater Recovery Team and the many dedicated local, state, federal and Canadian first responders, who worked tirelessly in the search and recovery effort."

Lehner, a nine-year veteran of the force, is the 52nd member of the Buffalo Police Department to die while on duty or because of an on-duty incident over the past 150 years.

Buffalo Police Officers who died on duty

On Friday morning, Lehner jumped into the river as part of a training exercise with other police divers at the foot of West Ferry Street, according to Buffalo Police.

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

Buffalo Police and crews from numerous other law enforcement agencies around Erie County and from across the state searched the river every day, using divers, boats and helicopters. At least 15 agencies participated in the search, said Derenda, adding that many more offered their services.

"Everyone showed up at the foot of Ferry every morning with one mission: Let's go get him," said Rinaldo.

The searchers worked tirelessly and selflessly as they headed out day after day into the turbulent waters of the Niagara River, scanning the water and searching the murky, debris-filled river bed, he said.

"At the end of the day, we did what we said we would do," Rinaldo said Tuesday at the news conference. "We brought our brother home."

Buffalo Police Officer Craig E. Lehner, who vanished during a police diving unit training exercise Friday in the Niagara River. Lehner's body was recovered Tuesday by authorities. (Photo courtesy of Shannon Davis)

Members of the police department and other searchers were heartbroken yet at the same time relieved that they were at least able to find him.

"The time for emotions is now," Rinaldo said.

Funeral arrangements were to be made by Lehner's family in consultation with the police department's protocol officer and could be announced as early as Wednesday, he added.

"Officer Lehner's family wishes to extend a debt of gratitude to all the agencies that have assisted with this and are very thankful for the closure," Rinaldo said. "We are as well."

Condolences poured in to the Buffalo Police Department and to Lehner's family as the news spread that his body had been recovered.

Among them was Vice President Mike Pence, who called Lehner's mother to offer his condolences while he was in town for a fundraiser for Rep. Chris Collins, a source close to today's events involving Pence told The Buffalo News.

In addition to calling Lehner's mother, the vice president also called Mayor Brown to express his condolences. Pence had planned to stop by the command center at the Bird Island pier to pay his respects, but when he received word that the officer's remains had been recovered, he decided to instead call the mother and the mayor.

During the Buffalo Common Council meeting Tuesday, Council President Darius G. Pridgen interrupted the meeting to announce there were media reports that Lehner's body had been recovered.

Council Chaplain Al Warner offered a prayer in support of Lehner's family, and after the meeting was adjourned, Council members silently exited Council chambers in honor of Lehner.

The Peace Bridge and dome of City Hall were lit blue in Lehner's honor Tuesday night.


News staff reporters Robert J. McCarthy and Deidre Williams contributed to this report.

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