A young woman lights a candle among hundreds of others left by mourners outside the Presidential Palace in memory of late Polish President Lech Kaczynski on Monday in Warsaw, Poland.
Unimaginable tragedy in Poland as President, First Lady, Top Military Commanders, Advisors die in Plane Crash
by Infidelesto on April 10, 2010
Polish President Lech Kaczynski, his wife and some of the country's most prominent military and civilian leaders died Saturday April 10, 2010 along with dozens of others when the presidential plane crashed as it came in for a landing in thick fog in near Smolensk in western Russia.
The crash came as a staggering blow to Poland, wiping out a large swath of the country’s leadership, including the commanders of all four branches of the military, the head of the central bank, the president and many of his top advisors. In the numb hours after the crash, leaders in Warsaw evoked the horror of the massacre at Katyn, which stood for decades as a symbol of Russian domination.
“It is a damned place,” former president Aleksander Kwasniewski told TVN24. “It sends shivers down my spine. First the flower of the Second Polish Republic is murdered in the forests around Smolensk, now the intellectual elite of the Third Polish Republic die in this tragic plane crash when approaching Smolensk airport.”
The Economist calls this a decapitation of Polish society: the plane crash also seems like a decapitation of Polish society. Among the 96 people who died were the chief of the Polish general staff, the head of the central bank, the director of the Institute of National Remembrance (which investigates and documents crimes such as Katyn) and many other of the country’s top public figures. Many politicians from the opposition Law and Justice Party, which is led by Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the late president’s twin brother, were among the delegation.
The country’s military chiefs were on board because they were going to attend ceremonies in the Katyn forest, near Smolensk, marking the 70th anniversary of the Soviet slaughter of 22,000 Polish officers there and elsewhere in Russia and Ukraine during World War II.
Poland plunged into political turmoil after crash:
The tragedy has forced an early presidential election which under the Polish constitution must be held before the end of June.
“This kind of dramatic tragedy is unheard of in the modern world,” Poland’s Prime Minister Donald Tusk said in Warsaw after an emergency cabinet meeting before he headed to the crash site in Smolensk in western Russia.
At the same time Bronislaw Komorowski, Poland’s parliamentary speaker who became acting head of state after Kaczynski’s death, declared a week of mourning for the 97 people killed in the crash.
Poland Had Nicknamed Government Planes ‘Flying Coffins’ – WSJ
Polish Premier Donald Tusk on board arrived to the Czech capital to meet U.S. President Barack Obama and eleven leaders of Middle and East European countries. Only 39 hours later, the same aircraft crashed near Smolensk, western Russia, on Saturday.
The airplane crash that killed Polish President Lech Kaczynski Saturday is deeply shocking — but, sadly, not a complete surprise. Poland has for years been calling the Soviet-era military aircraft used by Polish officials “flying coffins."
Poland’s former Prime Minister Leszek Miller once had to leave the government airplane at an airport in Germany after an engine caught on fire. He was later nearly killed in a helicopter crash — and still politicians were too afraid of the public reaction to buy new aircraft.
The possibility of a government aircraft crashing and killing an important official was so strongly discussed that it became absorbed into popular culture. Commercial television broadcaster Polsat produced a series called Ekipa in 2007 in which a fictitious president crashes in a helicopter and dies shortly afterward.
Poles continue to mourn President Lech Kaczynski, whose body was returned to home soil Sunday amid questions about the airplane crash that killed him and about the pilot who flew the jet.
The first lady and scores of others from the country's military and political elite also died in the crash in western Russia.
Russian investigators say a preliminary analysis of the flight data recorders indicates that there were no mechanical problems on board. So far, they are pointing to pilot error.
On Monday, Poland's acting president, Bronislaw Komorowski, ordered a review of rules governing travel for all senior military personnel. Saturday's crash killed 96 people, including senior leaders of all of Poland's branches of armed forces.
The presidential plane was repaired and overhauled in December. But Wawrzyniec Konarski, a professor of political science at the Warsaw School of Social Sciences, says it's absurd that the president and other top officials were flying in a two-decade-old Tupolev despite several warnings from senior officials and pilots that the aging official Polish fleet desperately needed to be replaced.
"The sources of transport, especially the planes, were perceived as obsolete and bad, should be absolutely replaced by new and modernized machines. This kind of debate, even a technical one, really has to be accelerated," Konarski says.
There was heavy fog before the crash, and the Russians say they advised the Polish pilot several times to divert the Tupolev 154 to another airport. Russian media reports suggest that the pilot made several attempts to land before the crash.
But Col. Tomasz Pietrzak of the Polish air force disputes that. He says sources on the ground at the airport in Smolensk in western Russia near where the plane went down tell him the pilot made one approach and, moreover, the advice to divert was just that — advice. In the end, Pietrzak says, it is up to the pilot to decide what to do.
"It's not mandatory, it's only suggestion. If the weather was really bad in the airport, the decision is only one: The controller must say, 'OK, the airport is closed,' " he says.
The airport was not closed, says Pietrzak, who trained and commanded the two pilots who flew to Russia on Saturday — the one who was flying the plane carrying journalists and which landed safely; and the pilot killed in the crash of the president's plane.
Pietrzak says he has spoken with the pilot who landed safely, and he confirmed that the other aircraft made just one approach to the airport and that the airport in Smolensk is a primitive Russian military post whose control tower lacks modern aviation guidance equipment.
For several years, Pietrzak commanded the Polish air force regiment that was in charge of flying the president and other senior officials. But he resigned two years ago in large part to protest the poor shape of the fleet.
"The technology of these aircraft is too old," he says, adding that he got tired of waiting for aircraft improvements that never came.
A breaking point came in 2003, the colonel says, when a helicopter carrying the prime minister crashed. All of the passengers survived, but Pietrzak says that crash should have been a wake-up call.
"It was a sign from [God] seven years ago that we have to do something, we have to change something. But all of them ignore the situation. Everybody put under the carpet these problems," Pietrzak says.
Some are asking whether the pilot was under pressure from President Kaczynski or others on the plane to land and make the commemoration ceremony on time. In at least one previous instance, the president had reportedly pressured his pilot to land despite warnings.
Polish media report that in 2008, pilots flying Kaczynski to Tbilisi refused the president's order to land in Georgia because of the country's military conflict with Russia. Instead, the plane diverted to Azerbaijan.
Pietrzak says this is speculation, and the flight data recorders would most likely be able to shed light on the question.
He notes that there were four microphones in the cockpit of the president's Tupolev, which he says would probably have picked up any chatter relating to pressure to land.
But, he says, an upgrade for the presidential fleet is still much needed, no matter what the recovered flight data recorders show to be the cause of Saturday's crash.
Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Poles lined the route from Warsaw's airport to the presidential palace Sunday. Many stood somberly in silence. Some tossed flowers at the entourage carrying the president's casket as it slowly made its way to the palace for eventual public viewing.
Magdelena Udalkowska came out to view the procession with her son.
"I wanted to be here to honor Lech Kaczynski," she said. "He was a great Polish patriot, and it was important to come out and pay our respects."
The president and the other dignitaries were traveling to Katyn, Russia, for a ceremony marking the anniversary of the 1940 massacre there of thousands of Polish officers, police and intellectuals by Joseph Stalin's secret police, known as the NKVD. Historians believe Stalin wanted to cripple a postwar Poland by eliminating much of the country's officer corps and key members of the intelligentsia.
Some Poles are now calling the plane crash the "second Katyn." Udalkowska said the fact that the crash occurred in a place already soaked in Polish blood only worsens the confusion and shock.
"The fact that this catastrophe occurred in this place again — and on the 70th anniversary — makes me think it was some kind of act of God. I don't know. It makes it all even more sad," she said.