‘The flower of our nation has . . . perished’

Plane crash claims Poland’s president and much of the nation’s military and civilian leadership

(Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
New York Times / April 11, 2010

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This article was reported by Nicholas Kulish, Ellen Barry, and Michal Piotrowski, and written by Barry.

WARSAW — A plane carrying the Polish president and dozens of the country’s top political and military leaders to the site of the Soviet massacre of Polish officers in World War II crashed in western Russia yesterday, killing everyone on board.

President Lech Kaczynski’s plane tried to land in a thick fog, missing the runway and snagging treetops about half a mile from the airport in Smolensk, scattering chunks of flaming fuselage across a bare forest.

The crash came as a stunning blow to Poland, wiping out a large portion of the country’s leadership in one fiery explosion. And in a bizarre twist, it happened at the moment that Russia and Poland were beginning to come to terms with the killing of more than 20,000 members of Poland’s elite officer corps in the same place 70 years ago.

“It is a damned place,’’ former president Aleksander Kwasniewski told TVN24. “It sends shivers down my spine.’’

“This is a wound which will be very difficult to heal,’’ he said.

A top Russian military official said air traffic controllers at the Smolensk airport had several times ordered the crew of the plane not to land, warned that it was descending below the glide path, and recommended it reroute to another airport.

“Nevertheless, the crew continued the descent,’’ said Lieutenant General Aleksandr Alyoshin, the first deputy chief of the Russian Air Force Staff. “Unfortunately, the result was tragic.’’ Both black boxes detailing data and transmissions from the plane were found at the crash site.

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 General Alexander Alyoshin confirmed that the pilot disregarded instructions to fly to another airfield. The Smolensk airfield is not equipped with an instrument landing system to guide planes to the ground.

Those killed included Kaczynski; his wife, Maria; Ryszard Kaczorowski, who led a government in exile during the Communist era; the deputy speaker of Poland’s Parliament, Jerzy Szmajdzinski; the head of the president’s chancellery, Wladyslaw Stasiak; the head of the National Security Bureau, Aleksander Szczyglo; the deputy minister of foreign affairs, Andrzej Kremer; the chief of the general staff of the Polish Army, Franciszek Gagor; the president of Poland’s national bank, Slawomir Skrzypek; the commissioner for civil rights protection, Janusz Kochanowski; and Anna Walentynowicz, 80, the former dock worker whose firing in 1980 set off the Solidarity strike that ultimately overthrew Polish communism, as well as relatives of victims of the massacre that they were on their way to commemorate.

The deaths were not expected to directly affect the functioning of Polish government: Poland’s president is commander in chief of its armed forces, but the position’s domestic duties are chiefly symbolic. No top government ministers were aboard the plane.

The plane was a 20-year-old Tupolev Tu-154, designed by the Soviets in the mid-1960s and operated by the Polish air force. Russia halted mass production of the jet about 20 years ago, and about 200 of them are still in service around the world, said Paul Hayes, director of accidents and insurance at Ascend, an aviation consultancy in London. He said the Polish presidential jet was one of the youngest of them.

Officials in Poland have repeatedly requested that the government’s aging air fleet be replaced. Former prime minister Leszek Miller, who survived a helicopter crash in 2003, told Polish news media he had long predicted such a disaster. “I once said that we will one day meet in a funeral procession, and that is when we will take the decision to replace the aircraft fleet,’’ he said.

The Tu-154 was the workhorse of East Bloc civil aviation in the 1970s and 1980s. According to the Aviation Safety Network, there have been 66 crashes involving Tu-154s in the past four decades, including six in the past five years. The Russian carrier Aeroflot recently withdrew its Tu-154 fleet from service, largely because the planes do not meet noise restrictions and use too much fuel.The presidential plane was fully overhauled in December, the general director of the Aviakor aviation maintenance plant in Samara, Russia told Rossiya-24. The plant repaired the plane’s three engines, retrofitted electronic and navigation equipment, and updated the interior, Alexei Gusev said. He said there could be no doubts that the plane was flightworthy.

Russian emergency officials said 97 people were killed, including 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.

Poles united in grief in a way that recalled the death of the Polish pope, John Paul II, five years ago. Thousands massed outside the Presidential Palace, laying flowers and lighting candles.

Magda Niemczyk, a 24-year-old student, held a single tulip. “I wanted to be together with the other Polish people,’’ she said.

“It’s a national tragedy,’’ said Ryszard Figurski, 70, a retired telecommunications worker. “Apart from their official positions, it is also simply the loss of so many lives.’’

Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski, one of the highest-ranking Polish leaders not on board the plane, told Poland’s Radio Zet that he was the one to inform Prime Minister Donald Tusk, who “was in tears when he heard about the catastrophe.’’

Devastating as the loss was, its connection with the 1940 massacre at Katyn shocked the nation. The crash happened days after Prime Minister Vladimir Putin became the first Russian leader to join Polish officials in commemorating the massacre, a wound that has festered between the two countries for decades and to Poles symbolized Russian domination.

Former President Lech Walesa, who presided over Poland’s transition from Communism, called the crash “the second disaster after Katyn.’’

“They wanted to cut off our head there, and here the flower of our nation has also perished,’’ he said.

The repercussions on Poland’s coming presidential elections were far from clear. The Law and Justice Party lost numerous important leaders in addition to the president, including its parliamentary leader. Kaczynski had been trailing far behind his opponent in the polls, but the outpouring of sympathy from the mourning public might benefit his party in the moved-up presidential election.

Under Poland’s constitution, the leader of the lower house of Parliament, now acting president, has 14 days to announce new elections, which must then take place within 60 days.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.