Poland mourns death of president, other top officials in plane crash
Sunday, April 11, 2010
WARSAW -- Tens of thousands of mourners filled the streets of central Warsaw with red votive candles Saturday night in a display of patriotism and grief hours after President Lech Kaczynski and senior Polish officials were killed when the presidential jet crashed in heavy fog in western Russia.
The crash, which officials said killed all 97 people on board, cut a devastating swath through Poland's political and military elite. In addition to Kaczynski and his wife, Maria, the dead included the national bank's president, the deputy foreign minister, the head of the National Security Office, the deputy Parliament speaker as well as lawmakers and presidential aides. Among military personnel killed were the army chief of staff, the head of the air force and the navy chief commander.
The tragedy generated what mourners in Warsaw described as a spontaneous outpouring of support, not necessarily for Kaczynski's nationalist politics or his party, but for the office of the presidency and for all those killed alongside him in the service of the nation.
"You can look around the street here, and half the people would not be voting for Kaczynski," said Aleksander Zborowski, 36, an Arizona State-educated engineer who was standing in front of the presidential palace along with thousands of other mourners. "But they are here because he was our president. It is patriotism."
Prime Minister Donald Tusk called the crash "the most tragic event of the country's postwar history," and his government called on Poles to observe two minutes of silence.
Under Poland's constitution, Tusk exercises primary control over the government, based on his party's majority in Parliament. The president, although the titular armed forces commander, plays a largely ceremonial role.
Also listed among the dead were some revered figures in the Polish struggle to break free of communism: Anna Walentynowicz, 80, the diminutive crane operator whose firing in August 1980 from the Lenin Shipyards in Gdansk helped spark the creation of Solidarity, the political movement that nine years later helped topple the communist government; and the last Polish president in exile, Ryszard Kaczorowski, 90, who stepped down when Lech Walesa, the leader of Solidarity, became the first post-communist president of Poland.
"This is a great tragedy, a great shock to us all," Walesa said.
The crash occurred Saturday morning near the city of Smolensk as the president's plane, a 26-year-old Russian-made Tupolev TU-154, was carrying the officials to a ceremony in Russia commemorating the Soviet massacre of Poland's officer corps in 1940 at the outset of World War II, one of the most traumatic events in 20th-century Polish history.
The governor of the Smolensk region said the pilot decided to land despite advice from the control tower that he divert to another airport because of poor visibility. The three-engine aircraft clipped trees and broke apart about a mile short of the runway at a military airport, officials said. Television images showed small fires amid the fog and a broken tail fin with the red and white colors of the Polish flag.
Kaczynski, who became president in 2005, was the identical twin brother of former prime minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski. Together they had roiled domestic and international politics with their combative brand of Polish conservatism that was suspicious of both the Kremlin and the European Union bureaucracy in Brussels. Lech Kaczynski, 60, was facing reelection this fall but was trailing in opinion polls.
"In the face of this tragedy, we stand all united," said Bronislaw Komorowski, speaker of the lower house of Parliament and now the acting president. "There is no left or right. There are no differences, no divisions. We are all together with our message of compassion to the families of those who died nearby the Smolensk airport."