Smolensk, Russia The crash of an aging Russian airliner ravaged the top levels of Poland’s military, political and church elite Saturday, killing the Polish president and dozens of other dignitaries as they traveled to a ceremony commemorating a slaughter that has divided the two nations for seven decades.
Poles wept before their televisions, lowered flags to half-staff and taped black ribbons in their windows after hearing that President Lech Kaczynski and the upper echelons of the establishment lay dead in woods a short drive from the site of the Katyn forest massacre, where 22,000 Polish officers were killed by Soviet secret police in one of Poland’s greatest national traumas.
Thousands of people, many in tears, placed candles and flowers at the presidential palace in central Warsaw. Many called the crash Poland’s worst disaster since World War II.
Twenty monks rang the Zygmunt bell at Krakow’s Wawel Cathedral — the burial spot of Polish kings — a tolling reserved for times of profound importance or grief.
The crash also shocked Russia. Sensing the depth of the tragedy for Poland, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin personally took charge of the investigation and very quickly and publicly offered condolences, along with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.
“On this difficult day the people of Russia stand with the Polish people,” Medvedev said, according to the Kremlin press service.
Chunks of the plane were scattered widely amid leafless trees and small fires in woods shrouded with fog. A tail fin with the red and white national colors of Poland stuck up from the smoking debris. Early indications pointed to pilot error in heavy fog as a factor in the crash, officials said.
On board were the national bank president, deputy foreign minister, army chaplain, head of the National Security Office, deputy parliament speaker, Olympic Committee head, civil rights commissioner and at least two presidential aides and three lawmakers, the Polish foreign ministry said. Kaczynski’s wife, Maria, also died.
“This is unbelievable — this tragic, cursed Katyn,” Kaczynski’s predecessor, Aleksander Kwasniewski, said on TVN24 television.
It is “a cursed place, horrible symbolism,” he said. “It’s hard to believe. You get chills down your spine.”
Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk and some cabinet members flew to Smolensk from Warsaw. The president’s twin brother, former Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski, headed to the area in a chartered plane along with party members.
Television showed Jaroslaw kneeling and praying at the crash site. Tusk, joined by Putin, placed a wreath at the site and knelt. When he stood up, Putin hugged him.
Afterward, Putin and Tusk had a video conference with members of a special commission in Moscow, who told them that doctors, psychologists and other specialists were ready to assist relatives of the victims. They said some bodies have already been flown to Moscow for identification and were being taken to the morgue.
The Polish military suffered the deepest losses. Among the dead were the army chief of staff, the navy chief commander, and heads of the air and land forces, who were all making the emotional trip to honor the Polish officers slain by the NKVD, the acronym for the Soviet secret police at the time of the killings in 1940.
‘A great tragedy’
Some on board were relatives of the officers slain in the Katyn massacre. Also among the victims was Anna Walentynowicz, whose firing in August 1980 from the Lenin Shipyards in Gdansk sparked a workers’ strike that spurred the eventual creation of the Solidarity freedom movement.
“This is a great tragedy, a great shock to us all,” former president and Solidarity leader Lech Walesa said.
Polish Parliament Speaker Bronislaw Komorowski, who became acting president, addressed his country on television: “Poland is in mourning, we have suffered a dramatically painful loss.”
He said he would announce early elections within 14 days of the president’s death, in line with the constitution. The vote must be within another 60 days.
Russia’s Emergency Ministry said there were 97 dead, 88 in the Polish state delegation. Poland’s Foreign Ministry said there were 89 people on the passenger list but one had not shown up for the roughly 1 1/2-hour flight from Warsaw’s main airport.
Poland called for two minutes of silence across the country today and declared a week of mourning. Medevedev declared Monday a day of mourning in Russia.
Cause of the crash
Putin and Medvedev promised Tusk they would work closely with Poland in investigating the crash. Initial signs pointed to an accident, possibly from the fog that is very common in the area in spring and fall, as well as pilot error.
Both black boxes have been found. Preliminary data indicated that the plane hit the treetops as it was making the approach to the airport in poor visibility, the ITAR-Tass news agency quoted Marina Gridneva, an official with the Russian general prosecutor’s office, as saying.
Andrei Yevseyenkov, spokesman for the Smolensk regional government, said Russian dispatchers had asked the Polish crew to divert from the military airport in North Smolensk and land instead in Minsk, the capital of neighboring Belarus, or in Moscow to the east because of the fog.
While traffic controllers generally have the final word in whether it is safe for a plane to land, they can and do leave it to the pilots’ discretion. Air Force Gen. Alexander Alyoshin confirmed that the pilot disregarded instructions to fly to another airfield.