Polish president, wife lie in state as a nation mourns

Line stretches over half-mile; funeral Sunday

Flowers and photographs were placed in front of the Presidential Palace three days after Polish President Lech Kaczynski, his wife, and other military and civilian leaders died in a plane crash. Flowers and photographs were placed in front of the Presidential Palace three days after Polish President Lech Kaczynski, his wife, and other military and civilian leaders died in a plane crash. (Petr David Josek/Associated Press)
By Monika Scislowska and Matt Moore
Associated Press / April 14, 2010

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WARSAW — Thousands of grieving mourners tossed flowers at a slow-moving hearse or joined an enormous viewing line at the presidential palace to pay their respects yesterday to Polish President Lech Kaczynski and his wife as their bodies lay in state.

Kaczynski and his wife, Maria Kaczynska, were among 96 people killed Saturday in a plane crash in western Russia. Investigators are pointing to human error as the cause.

Mourners knelt, prayed, and cried before the first couple’s closed coffins in the Columned Hall of the palace, where the president appointed and dismissed governments. The line to get in swelled to over a half-mile long but the mourners were not deterred.

“We will wait as long as it takes,’’ said Alicja Marszalek, a retired telephone operator waiting with a friend. “We want to pay homage to them because they were wonderful people. He was a modest man, very well educated, intelligent and kind.’’

Polish television broadcast live images of mourners walking by the coffins. Many were families with children, parents, and grandparents. Each coffin was flanked by a pair of soldiers, standing crisp and stonelike.

Earlier yesterday, Kaczynska’s body was greeted with tears and tulips after being flown home from Russia, and officials said the first couple will be buried Sunday in a state funeral at Krakow’s Wawel Cathedral.

Stanislaw Kracik, Krakow province governor, said the funeral will be held at 2 p.m. Sunday in the 1,000-year-old cathedral — the main burial site of Polish monarchs since the 14th century.

The last Polish leader killed in office, General Wladyslaw Sikorski, the exiled World War II leader who perished in a mysterious plane crash off Gibraltar in 1943, is also interred there.

Leaders expected for the funeral include Russian President Dmitri Medvedev.

Kaczynska’s body, in a wooden casket draped with Poland’s white-and-red flag, was met by her only child, Marta, and by Jaroslaw Kaczynski, her brother-in-law who was also the twin of the late president.

Her daughter knelt by the casket and wept as a Polish honor guard stood by.

Kaczynska’s body was then ferried slowly to the Presidential Palace in the back of a black Mercedes-Benz hearse, just like her husband’s was on Sunday. Thousands of Warsaw residents lined the route, gently lobbing bouquets of tulips and roses on top of the hearse.

“I’m here because it’s such a tragedy for Poland,’’ said Maja Jelenicka, 63. “I’m in despair. I feel as if I’ve lost a close relative. Maria Kaczynska was a wonderful woman, kind, with a heart of gold.’’

Parliament held a special observance in memory of the president and the 18 lawmakers killed in the plane crash. In the assembly hall, framed portraits of the lawmakers and flowers bedecked their now-empty seats.

The names of the victims were read out, and Senate Speaker Bogdan Borusewicz, his voice breaking, declared the crash the “greatest tragedy in Poland’s postwar history.’’

Investigators have suggested that human error may have been to blame in Saturday’s crash that killed the Polish president and 95 others. The Tu-154 went down while trying to land in dense fog at Smolensk in western Russia. All aboard were killed, including Kaczynski and dozens of Polish political, military, and religious leaders.

They had been traveling in the Polish government-owned plane to attend a memorial in the nearby Katyn forest for thousands of Polish military officers executed 70 years ago by Josef Stalin’s secret police.

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov said yesterday that there was no explosion or fire on the plane and that the engines were working normally.

The pilot had been warned of bad weather in Smolensk, and was advised by traffic controllers to land elsewhere — which would have delayed the Katyn observances. He was identified as Captain Arkadiusz Protasiuk, 36, and the co-pilot as Major Robert Grzywna, 36.

Traffic controller Anatoly Muravyev, part of the Russian team that handled the plane, told the Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper that the crew ignored their warnings about worsening weather at the Smolensk airport.

Polish Prosecutor General Andrzej Seremet said Polish prosecutors were still reviewing data from the flight recorders and would discuss their findings tomorrow.

So far, 87 bodies have been recovered and 40 of them identified, he said.