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November 15, 2010

Lockport man found dead in canal

TONAWANDA — A Lockport man was found dead Monday morning after apparently driving a pickup into the Erie Canal in the City of Tonawanda.

The driver of the vehicle was identified as Kevin J. Hughes, 51, of Lockport, according to a news release issued by City of Tonawanda police around 5 p.m., nearly 12 hours after a passer-by reported unusual tire tracks leading into the water around 5:30 a.m. Police released the identity of the driver after family members were contacted with the news of his death.

Hughes’ body was located seated inside the vehicle by police scuba divers. The truck was found submerged in 8 to 12 feet of water beneath the Delaware Street Bridge, near the heart of the city’s downtown business district.

Lt. Fredric Foels said a commuter noticed tire tracks leading into the canal at the foot of the East Niagara Street off-ramp beneath the bridge, and reported the matter to police, who were quickly dispatched to investigate.

“We went and discovered there were tire tracks that led to the canal and there was an ornamental light pole knocked off ... our divers went into the water, located a vehicle and there was a body in it,” Foels said.

Only Hughes was found inside the truck, he said, and the investigation continues into what may have caused the vehicle to continue straight at the foot of the ramp, rather than make the sharp angled turn onto East Niagara Street.

Police are hoping an autopsy will narrow the potential reasons the vehicle became submerged in the canal. So far the investigation is focusing on four possible explanations — driver error, a medical emergency, drunken driving or suicide — for the deadly crash.

“Hopefully, an autopsy will be able to pinpoint that more, but as of now we don’t know,” Foels said.

City of Tonawanda Fire Chief Charles Stuart said workers responded to the complaint within minutes, but that the timeframe surrounding the incident made it quickly apparent the operation would lean toward a recovery effort.

“It was pretty obvious, that light standard was taken out, part of the floating dock was taken out and you could see fairly fresh tracks leading to the break wall,” he said. “The normal procedure for this kind of thing is to remove the body first. The timeframe was way beyond what we would consider a savable victim so our priority was to do it without getting anybody hurt.”

A large wrecker with an extendable boom was used to remove the vehicle just after 8 a.m., he said.

Police dive teams serving both the City of Tonawanda and North Tonawanda took part in the operation.

Stuart said a fire department boat was used to mark the site and collect gas and oil from the vehicle using an absorbent pad, as well as to collect items from the truck found floating in the water as evidence for police.

Contact reporter Neale Gulley at 693-1000, ext. 114.

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