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Tragedy of police diver disappearing unfolded in just 30 minutes

The emergency underneath the Niagara River went from bad to worse in no more than 30 minutes.

Officer Craig E. Lehner was alone in the river during an underwater recovery training session when the tender cable that connected him to colleagues on land became snagged on an unknown object, three police sources said Wednesday.

Team members on the Bird Island pier knew they had a serious problem when the line suddenly tightened. They let out more line and pulled it in different directions trying to free it and pull Lehner to the surface, said the sources who did not want to be identified because of the ongoing investigation.

When that did not work, two team members tethered themselves to Lehner's tender line and jumped in in an attempt to reach him some 25 feet under water. But the swift current, moving at 12 mph or faster, was too strong, and they were forced to cut themselves loose from the line and surface, the sources said.

Team members next threaded an emergency air tank to the tender line and attempted to send it down to Lehner, but again the current proved too much and the tank would not sink to the river bottom. These desperate attempts to save Lehner rapidly unfolded starting at about 12:50 p.m.

They called for assistance, and the U.S. Coast Guard dispatched a 45-foot response boat that arrived at approximately 1:10 p.m., according to the Coast Guard.

With the tender cable extended to its full length, 300 feet, and attached to the boat, the Coast Guard crew pulled from different directions, hoping to unsnag the line. Instead the line snapped, the police sources said.

The emergency air tank, which never made it to the bottom, was found floating near the pier.

Police estimate this all happened in about 30 minutes.

Investigators are trying to piece together what happened last Friday. But several questions still confront them in Lehner's death:

  • How did the tender cable 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?

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

An autopsy was 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.

Added Lt. Jeff Rinaldo: "Diving is so technical and there are so many variables. We may never know what happened."

He was referring to the large amount of debris on the riverbed.

Five days after Lehner went missing, at 1:25 p.m. Tuesday,  the commander of the underwater rescue team and another team member spotted what looked like a black object in the water some 2,000 to 3,000 feet north of the International Railway Bridge and 160 feet off shore.

It was the fins Lehner was still wearing. His body had floated to the water's surface, despite a 40-pound diving belt and other heavy equipment, including his air tanks.

And still attached to the 34-year-old officer's diving equipment was several inches of his tender line, police said. The yellow line is a made of synthetic material, polypropylene, and is described on retail websites as lightweight, rot resistant and able to float. When the tender line snapped, some 225 feet of it was recovered, leaving about 75 feet under water.

Questions have been raised why Lehner was not equipped with a GPS to pinpoint his location, but authorities said global positioning system devices do not function under water.

Members of the underwater rescue team, including its commander, Detective Leo McGrath, have been given time off to recuperate from the intense search that occurred over five days, Rinaldo said at a Wednesday afternoon news conference in Police Headquarters.

Once team members return to work, they will be debriefed by the department's homicide detectives.

Rinaldo pointed out that it is standard procedure for homicide detectives to investigate in-the-line-of-duty deaths.

The state Department of Labor's public employee safety and health unit is also involved in the investigation. The Coast Guard does not have jurisdiction because the fatality did not involve a boating accident. Detectives are also expected to consult diving experts, Rinaldo said.

Police Officer John T. Kujawa, a K-9 officer and member of the underwater recovery team, said he was on the team's boat Tuesday when he and McGrath spotted the black object in the water.

"We didn't know what it was at first and we radioed to the Niagara Diver Rescue boat to check," Kujawa said of how they found Lehner. "You don't float to the surface with a 40-pound diver's belt and other equipment. To me, it was the Big Guy upstairs saying, 'Here's your diver.' I believe in God."

Lehner, who is single and joined the force in 2008, also served as a full-time K-9 officer. Described by police as an accomplished scuba diver since his days in the military, he tried out for the underwater recovery team last April, passed the different tests and was accepted onto the team.

Police doing 'double duty' caring for Craig Lehner's K-9 dog Shield

When he served with the Army National Guard, he completed deployments to Iraq and the U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.

Chief of Detectives Dennis J. Richards, who is serving as the department's protocol officer for the funeral, said he met Wednesday with Lehner's family and they are in the process of finalizing funeral arrangements.

The arrangements, Richards said, may be released sometime Thursday. Lehner will receive full police and military honors.

"His family is extremely grateful for the outpouring of support from the community and the nation," Richards said.

Rinaldo said, "We are expecting thousands and thousands of people to attend the funeral."

Rinaldo also again thanked the many agencies that assisted in the search and the local businesses that came forward offering food, hotel rooms and other supplies.

"We didn't have to make a call," he said. "They called us."

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