Search for missing police diver continues

Oct 15, 2017

The search for missing Buffalo Police diver Craig Lehner continued on Monday. Though unsuccessful, police vowed to pick up the search again on Tuesday.

Four days after the 34-year-old went missing during a training exercise, police from Buffalo and numerous other agencies were continuing their search of the swift-moving, murky waters of the Niagara River. 

"It's a lot of ups and downs," said Buffalo Police Lieutenant Jeff Rinaldo during a Monday afternoon briefing. "We get word that there's a possible sonar hit of something, you kind of see everybody's spirits pick up a little bit. And then it goes right back down because the boat camera goes through or the diver goes through and says no it wasn't it."

More than a dozen boats were continuing to use sonar and cameras to carefully search the waters of the Niagara River, battling a swift current as they scanned a large portion of the water from Broderick Park to the International Rail Bridge.

The United States Army Corps of Engineers provided two boats with advanced side-scanning sonar equipment that, as Rinaldo explained, was working to create a map of the river floor.

"A lot of the day was spent having those boats traverse the water from the point where we know the diver entered as far as the International (Rail) Bridge. 

"The way the mapping works, they have to make multiple passes. Every time they make a pass in a certain grid pattern, it produces one layer of the map. The more passes, the more layers of the map they get developed."

While the equipment may produce sophisticated images of the river floor, Rinaldo added that the debris field on the U.S. side of the river extends out 100 to 200 feet and makes the scanning complicated. Sunday's high-wind conditions and rain also adversely affected visibility below the river's surface.  

"I know to the people watching, it probably doesn't make a lot of sense," he said. "Why is it this difficult? If you have all this technology, why can't you see it? Everybody from all these other agencies that came here said if this was a still body of water, if this was a normal river flowing at two knots or three knots, we'd have this mapped out like a Google Earth map. It's the speed of the river, it's the debris field, it's the current, it's the wind, it's just that perfect storm of conditions that's just making it extremely difficult." 

Since the search began Friday, an estimated 20 agencies from various levels, from two nations, have joined the effort. Among those taking part in the search Monday were members of the Monroe County Sheriff's Department. Captain Paul Delella said they provided a 29-foot craft and scuba divers to assist the other resources on the scene.

He, too, spoke of the difficult conditions where the debris was more plentiful.

"It depends on where you are. I'm told that on this southerly part of the river there's a lot of debris," he said. "As you work north, there's a lot less debris." 

A handful of chaplains stood by, ready to offer support or, as one of them stated, to simply listen. While they were unauthorized to speak on the record, they intimated that those taking part in the search are physically, emotionally and even spiritually exhausted. Yet they remain determined.

Missing Buffalo Police diver Craig Lehner
Credit Buffalo Police Department

"Obviously, it's been a rough couple of days for members of the BPD. We anticipate a few more rough days. We thanks everybody for their support," said Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda. "Everybody's been nothing short of spectacular."

Rinaldo said the search has gradually been moving down river and the command post might move from Broderick Park at the foot of Ferry Street to Ontario Street with its boat launch.

Mayor Byron Brown thanked outside police agencies, plus businesses and members of the public, which are all contributing. Even some retired police divers have turned out to participate in the search.

Erie County District Attorney John Flynn said he talked with Lehner's sister about the ongoing effort.

Mayor Brown joins police officials in Sunday morning update on diver search.
Credit Mike Desmond / WBFO News

"The sister said this is Buffalo at its best," Flynn said.

Sonar equipment and robotic devices are assisting divers in the search for Lehner. He is a nine-year veteran of the Buffalo Police Department.

"Everybody's tired, everybody's stressed, but we've got a job to do and we're going to do it. That's what's driving us. We have a responsibility to bring Craig home for his family," said Rinaldo.

"We are going to be here until he's found. It'll just be a determination, after talking with our dive teams, our boat teams, our air teams, to figure out, if we're not successful in the next day or two, how that search continues. But we will never stop looking."