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What happened to Officer Lehner underneath the Niagara River?

In the days since Buffalo Police Officer Craig Lehner's body was recovered from the Niagara River and the city mourned his death at a funeral attended by thousands, the mystery of what happened to him remains.

Two investigations are underway, one by Buffalo homicide detectives and one by the state Labor Department.

Some details are coming to light.

  • A preliminary autopsy indicated Lehner, 34, died as the result of drowning, police officials told The Buffalo News. Water was found in his lungs.
  • There was a gash on his forehead and trauma to his head, police said.
  • Lehner's air tanks, which were on him when his body was found, were more than half full.
  • Several inches of a tender line were connected to a harness ring on Lehner's suit. The end of the line was frayed, and did not appear to have been cleanly cut.

"It was a tragic accident," said Buffalo Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda, "and the investigation is still in its preliminary stages."

As the investigations continue, Buffalo's Underwater Recovery Team is not planning any more dives in the Niagara River for the rest of the year, police officials said, but the team will conduct other training.

And so far, there are no indications of equipment failure in connection to Lehner's death, police said.

Air in the tanks, a frayed tether

Lehner's body was found floating in the river a few thousand feet north of the International Railway Bridge on Oct. 17 and he was still wearing much of his gear, according to police: his air tanks, a regulator, a buoyancy compensator and a 40-pound weight belt. His face mask was missing.

Officer Craig Lehner

Lehner's tanks were more than half-full of air, about 1,600 psi (pounds per square inch), police said. Diving experts consulted by The News say that would provide as much as about an hour of air, depending on the diver's exertion levels.

Divers are trained to ditch their weights and inflate the buoyancy compensator, a vest designed to fill up with air, if they need to get to the surface, experts said.

When Lehner jumped into the water off Bird Island Pier, which is about 25 or 30 feet deep at that location, a fellow member of the police Underwater Recovery Team was holding the tender line, which is standard practice for dives of this nature, police said.

Lehner was in the water for less than five minutes when the team member holding his line noticed it suddenly tightened. The line then went slack, and then tightened again, according to new details obtained by The News.

His team members feared he was trapped, possibly tangled in old fishing lines or debris.

A rescue effort followed, starting at about 12:50 p.m. Oct. 13. Two URT divers tried to follow the tender line down to where he was but the current was too strong and they could not locate him, police sources described to The News.

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. It was later found floating near the pier.

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. A police diver went down on the line from the boat. But the line snapped, the police sources said.

The frayed end of the line still attached to Lehner likely means it tore or snapped and wasn't cut, police and diving experts told The News.

Lehner had with him two knives and a pair of surgical scissors, which he could have used to cut the line to try to free himself, a Buffalo Police Underwater Recovery Team member told The News. The scissors are so sharp they can cut through a penny, according to the officer who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the case.

Diving in the Niagara River

Lehner, a nine-year-veteran of the Buffalo Police Department, joined the department's Underwater Recovery Team in April. Before joining the team, prospective members need to be certified scuba divers. Once accepted, members train for a year before becoming a permanent member. Lehner was still going through the year of training. Among the milestones he still needed to experience for his training were winter diving under ice, a fellow team member said.

Lehner's commander on the team, Detective Leo McGrath, described him at his funeral as "calm, cool, collected" and adept at finding objects in the water, "even in black water."

The 14-member diving team trained in the Niagara River once a month, police said.

On Oct. 13, before the dive team members went into the water, McGrath told mourners last week, he asked the same question he always does before training sessions.

"What is the most important thing to concentrate on today?" he asked.

The search for Buffalo Police Officer Craig Lehner, who disappeared during scuba diving training on Oct. 13, went on in the fast-moving, debris-filled waters of the Niagara River for five days. Here, the Monroe County Sheriff's Department helped in the search. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Before he could even finish the question, Lehner had yelled out: "Safety!"

"I had to tell him to be patient, 'Wait for me to get my sentence out,'" McGrath said Wednesday. "But that's how eager he was to get to work."

Diving in moving water, particularly swift water like the Niagara River, comes with obvious risks and the Buffalo police diving team is well aware of the potential hazards, police said.

Lehner posted a couple of quick videos about diving to his Snapchat account that appear to have been taken just before his dive on Oct. 13. Snapchat posts are designed to disappear after 24 hours.

In one, the river is rushing and the Peace Bridge is in the background. Three divers are standing on a rock next to the water and a railing can be seen on the right.

"That water is MOVING," Lehner wrote.

A second video shows Lehner's feet in diving shoes and then he turns the camera on himself and he makes a wry joke.

Divers say the current is powerful at the start of the Niagara River and the bottom is littered with debris. On Oct. 13, police estimated the water was moving at about 10 to 15 miles per hour. Visibility at the bottom would be 3 to 4 feet.

One diver's experience

James Kinner, a local scuba diver and fisherman, dives recreationally in the Niagara River and once dove off the Bird Island Pier, the area where the police divers were practicing Oct. 13. Once was enough, he said of his experience 15 years ago.

"The current is the strongest I've ever experienced, treacherous," he described in emails to The News. "There is all kinds of junk down there, lots of fishing line. The bottom is uneven."

During that dive 15 years ago, Kinner and two other divers with him that day weren't tethered. They used a claw, similar to a gardening claw, to hook onto the bottom to control their movement.

He recalled that the diver who led the expedition taught them to go downstream backward. By facing the current, Kinner said the leader explained, "it would keep the mask and regulator from being torn from our face, or free flowing, and keep the flow from flipping us over. The current would actually get under you and flip you."

Kinner regretted the dive as soon as he got in the water, he said.

"The current tore at me as I worked down the rocks … The current pushed the glass of the mask onto my nose. You could only turn your head a bit or it would be torn off. Junk was everywhere," he described in a Facebook post.

Using his claw and fighting the current, he said he made his way downstream taking quick peeks underneath to make sure he wasn't going to crash into anything.

"It was sort of like climbing down a mountain," he said, "with a fire hose hitting you."

A rock that he tried to hold onto turned over and he free floated for a few seconds before he reached his claw out to hook onto an old railing.

"In those few seconds, I had gained some speed. I thought it was going to tear my arm out of the socket," Kinner described. He made his way out of the water, and he and another diver agreed they'd never do it again.

"One and done," Kinner said.

Other police diving accidents

The Buffalo Police Department is not alone in having lost one of its own in a diving accident.

In 1984, Rochester Police Officer Ronald J. Siver died while searching for the victim of a boat crash in Irondequoit Bay. His widow sued the City of Rochester for negligence, claiming "improper training procedures" and "faulty equipment led to her husband's death," according to the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. She received a settlement of more than $1 million but the city did not admit negligence, the paper reported. The Rochester Police Department sent its diving team to help in the search and recovery of Officer Lehner.

In 2000, Chicago Police Sgt. Alane Stoffregen drowned during a training exercise a mile off the shore of Lake Michigan.

"Rough waters, exhaustion and panic contributed to the drowning," the Chicago Tribune reported.

In late 2011, Officer Specialist Timothy Schock of the Chesapeake, Va., Police Department drowned in a training exercise in a lake after two pieces of his equipment failed, according to the Virginian-Pilot.

Lehner's death has resonated far beyond Western New York.

"Every time there is a loss in the public safety diving community, we feel it. It is a difficult thing when it happens and we all want to find answers to make it not happen again," said Justin Fox, president of Dive Rescue International Inc., in Fort Collins, Colo. The organization provides training and equipment for responders in aquatic environments.

He pointed out that all scuba diving comes with risks.

"And when you're diving in moving water, it is more of a risk, and when it is fast moving water, it is an even greater risk," Fox said.

Questions posed about dive training

During the search and following the recovery, many questions have been asked about police diving procedures.

Among them:

  • Why couldn't searchers communicate with Lehner?
  • Why didn't searchers use GPS to find Lehner?
  • Aren't divers supposed to work in teams of two?
  • Would it have helped if the police had a boat in the water?

Blades Robinson, executive director of the International Association of Dive Rescue Specialists, who is not involved in the investigation and did not want to guess about what happened, offered some general answers.

Communication: Divers should be able to communicate with their surface tenders, the person who is holding their tether line during a dive. Some divers use line signals by pulling on the line. Electronic voice communication is preferred, Robinson said.

The Buffalo Police Department has eight "comm units" for its diving team – full helmets with two-way radio communication. Lehner was not wearing one of those. He had on a regulator and face mask. A Buffalo police diver said the helmet would not work in the Niagara River because it would be "ripped off" by the current.

GPS: Global Positioning Systems don't work under water. Scuba divers often carry beacons or whistles, but they only work at the surface.

Teams of two: Recreational divers are advised to always swim in pairs but public safety divers often do not because they usually work while tethered to a surface tender.

"The diver can remain focused on doing the task at hand without the distraction of monitoring the buddy underwater," Robinson said.

There was a second diver in the water at the time Lehner ran into trouble, although they weren't working as a team, police officials said. That diver was unaware at the time that a problem had occurred.

Boat: "In some instances, it may be appropriate but in many instances it may not be appropriate. This is a judgment call based on conditions at a given time/location," Robinson said.