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Why an entire community grieves ... and shows the blue

Ray Brown was returning from a fare to Niagara Falls Saturday morning when he found himself turning into Buffalo’s Broderick Park.

He got out of his mini-van cab and slowly walked to the makeshift memorial springing up on the park’s edge, just above the rushing waters of the Niagara River. He snapped a photo on his cell phone, and then he stood quietly for just a moment, looking  at the collection of flags, candles, blue pumpkins and letters with envelopes marked “Craig.”

“He was serving his people, the people of Western New York,” Brown said. “I just wanted to come and show my respect.”

That’s just one of the little stories resulting from the death of Craig Lehner, the Buffalo police diver lost to the Niagara River while training there with his Underwater Recovery Team. Divers and searchers spent five days before finding and retrieving the body of their comrade, and the saga weighed heavy on thousands of hearts throughout the region.

Maybe that is because Lehner was just 34, with so many friends and admirers. Or maybe because he served not only as a police officer, but as a K-9 handler and emergency diver. Or because Lehner also had been military policeman with the National Guard in Iraq.

Now all these little stories are about to converge into one great, big story Wednesday when thousands – including police officers from all over the United States and Canada – converge on KeyBank Center for Lehner's funeral. Politicians, police officials and ordinary citizens alike say they can’t remember such a collective reaction.

“This was so prolonged,” Dennis J. Richards, the Buffalo Police Department’s chief of detectives and protocol officer, said Saturday of the five-day search.  “And it caused all kinds of people to band together to rescue him, and then, unfortunately, to recover him.”

All of Lehner’s first responder roles combined to “magnify” the tragedy, Richards added.

Police officers, K-9 handlers, dive team members, and military veterans all plan to send contingents to the arena on Wednesday. Count the public in on that, too.

Craig Lehner's funeral could be largest ever seen for a Buffalo police officer

“Someone who brought down a dozen donuts or food feels they need to be there,” Richards said. “There’s just been this tremendous outpouring. This has become such a different experience because of his lifetime of service.”

On Saranac Avenue in North Buffalo on Saturday, a handmade poster was pasted over the Saranac Central Block Association sign.

“SCBA Thanks BPD and Remembers K-9 43,” the poster read, recalling Lehner’s police dog handler badge.

Sean Kirst: A police dog runs to the river, in fierce loyalty to missing officer

Neighbors along the street enjoy a close association with police officers and firefighters, many of whom live on Saranac, said block club president Vincent Gregory.

“We see the officers professionally and non-professionally on Hertel Avenue every day,” Gregory said. “They’re basically part of our lives.”

When neighbors called him following Lehner’s death, they realized they could at least show support. Blue ribbons now adorn many of the lamp posts in front of Saranac’s well-kept homes.

“It’s just a way of letting the police know we appreciate and understand,” Gregory said.

Neighbors also are talking about establishing a local dog park in honor of Lehner and his K-9 partner, Shield, he said.

Similar sentiments occurred Friday at Makowski School 99 on Jefferson Avenue.  Students there made cards to show support for the Police Department and Lehner family. They also crafted a special basket that will be presented to officers Monday morning.

Then there was the blue ice at KeyBank Arena Friday night, when the Buffalo Sabres stood for a moment of silence Friday before their game with the Vancouver Canucks. Blue light bathes City Hall’s tower and the span of the Peace Bridge. And blue lights flicker on at homes throughout the area.

Buffalo Sabres holdd a moment of silence with blue ice for fallen Officer Craig Lehner at KeyBank Center on Oct. 20. (James P. McCoy/Buffalo News)

It’s a lot of little things.

At the Great Pumpkin Farm in Clarence Saturday, the usual fall frolic seemed tempered by K-9 officers of the Buffalo police and Erie County Sheriff’s Office. The officers posed for photos with kids, while members of the WNY Heroes organization sold blue pumpkins to raise money for Lehner’s family.

People pick out a blue pumpkins to buy at the Great Pumpkin Farm in Clarence Saturday, October 21, 2017. All was part of "Operation Shield's Pumpkin Patch" put on by WNY Heroes, The Great Pumpkin Farm in Clarence, Home Depot and former members of the 105th Military Police. They sold blue painted pumpkins and tee shirts to benefit officer Craig Lehner's family. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

“The hands of the women who painted these pumpkins are literally blue from all the time they have spent on them,” Officer Joseph Szafranski said. “They’re selling out quickly.”

Thurman Thomas was there, too. The former Buffalo Bills running back spent the afternoon in one of the attraction’s barns, autographing T-shirts selling for $10 each to benefit the family.

“I’m here just to support the Lehner family and raise some money,” Thomas said. “I know a lot of police officers in my home town of Houston and where I went to school in Oklahoma, and here, too. This is all for someone who was important to his family and his community.”

Stephanie Aquilina snaps a photo of her children Daniel, left, Courtney, center, and Matthew, right, with Hall of Famer Thurman Thomas after they bought a tee shirt to benefit the family of BPD officer Craig Lehner at the Great Pumpkin Farm in Clarence Saturday, October 21, 2017. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

Earlier this month, Thomas expressed support for National Football League players who kneel during the national anthem to protest police brutality. This was different, he said. Now he was among those who also felt they had to “be there.”

“I’m showing love and support for the community like I always have,” he said.

Former Sheriff Thomas F. Higgins helped organize the Police Department’s Underwater Recovery Team back in 1960. He spent enough hours diving through ice holes to know the job. Last week he visited the officers on the river as they searched for Lehner.

“I was on that team for 15 years, and it all just grabbed me,” Higgins said.

Lehner's death has gripped the community because it did not stem from the usual police dangers like a gunfight or ambush, Higgins said. He also believes the public appreciates the trauma that police divers routinely face and the bond that binds the police divers.

“This involved the camaraderie of the team and a long rescue operation,” Higgins said. “It’s so much different. And, he was down there alone and in the dark. It just rips you up.”

Anthony M. Masiello knows the grief, too. He lost two police officers, two firefighters and a sanitation worker on the job during his 12 years as mayor of Buffalo.

“There is nothing more gut-wrenching than getting that call at 4 in the morning from ECMC,” he said.

Masiello agreed that the funeral for Lehner on Wednesdy may be unmatched in the city’s history. Lehner’s family has invited the public to the arena for the service.

He noted the quasi-military nature of the police and fire departments, their special bond, and the link that will draw officers from across the nation.

“This one played out over many days and in the minds of the public,” Masiello said. “Everybody was in on this. And it’s a painful reminder of how dangerous these jobs are.

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