I-TEAM: Hazards discovered in Niagara River where Lehner's dive began

Posted at 11:29 AM, Dec 07, 2017

Nearly two months after Buffalo Police Officer Craig Lehner went missing in the Niagara River, there are still many questions about his death during a routine training dive.

Both Buffalo police homicide investigators and investigators from the state Public Employee Safety and Health Bureau are looking into the diver's death.  

The investigation has been ongoing for weeks. Representatives from PESH will not comment on where their investigation stands, but Buffalo police have said Lehner likely got caught on something underwater.

During the five-day long search in the Niagara River, many different agencies were called to assist in the search for Lehner's body.

That includes the Army Corps of Engineers.

"It's a dangerous waterway--probably one of the most dangerous," said Roman Figler, Chief of Surveys from the Army Corps.

The inherent danger is in the current, which Figler says is very fast.  

But what's beneath the water, near where Lehner's dive started at Broderick Park, poses a bigger problem.  

The problem isn't just for divers but potentially for recreational boaters, too. "There are three cars and a truck.  I'm not sure how they got there, but they're there," Figler said.

Figler uses 3-D sonar images as proof of what's under the water.  The images map out what's on the bottom and shows how uneven it is 20-feet or so down.

The scans were taken in real time during the initial days of the search.  

"You could narrow down to smaller areas where the person to be recovered would be and maybe even find that person, " Jessie Petit said.  Petit is a technician, who maps out the river for the Army Corps.

The equipment the Army Corps is using is so advanced, it can detect something as small as a basketball underwater.  That's why this technology was used to find Lehner's body.   Divers who were on scene the day Lehner went missing are now being interviewed by detectives.  

The 7 Eyewitness News I-Team has learned this was Lehner's first dive in this part of the water.

"It's one of those things we have to train for," said Buffalo Police Captain Jeff Rinaldo.  "It is very dangerous and I know a lot of people have questioned, if it's that dangerous why do you do it?  But it is in our front yard."

Rinaldo said those sonar scans are being reviewed by investigators.  

Those images, however, were not available to divers before the deadly training exercise.  

The department did not have access to the map, because there wasn't one before the deadly dive.

The Army Corps routinely maps out part of the Niagara River, in what's called 'navigable water' used by mariners.  

They monitor the Black Rock Canal in particular, for hazards and water depth, near where Lehner's body was found.  They do not monitor the area where the dive started near Broderick Park.

There isn't an organization that actually monitors under water debris around the park, because the water is non-navigable.

Darryl Edmiston is an expert diver with nearly 50 years experience.  He says the area should not be maintained or mapped.

"Even taking pictures of it once a year, well, a few months later, that bottom, the structures there could change and move. A picture that's a year old or six months old may not be accurate anymore," Edmiston said.

There are some hazard maps maintained by NOAA, that would highlight issues like a shipwreck at the bottom of the Niagara River.  

If there was a shipwreck near Broderick Park, NOAA would chart that.  They would not chart the debris or vehicles underwater.

It's unclear if the maps taken by the Army Corps of Engineers, during the search for Lehner, will be used in future training exercises.  

Training dives have been suspended in that part of the river until further notice, while investigators work to find out exactly what happened in the underwater mishap.

The 7 Eyewitness News I-Team has formally requested information about the Buffalo police Underwater Recovery Team, including budget requests, equipment used and qualifications of each member.  That request was denied because of the looming investigation.

Despite repeated requests, state investigators from PESH will not comment on where the investigation stands.