Polish President Lech Kaczynski and some of the country's highest military and civilian leaders died Saturday along with dozens of others when the presidential plane crashed as it came in for a landing in thick fog in western Russia.
Russian and Polish officials offered conflicting death tolls but agreed there were no survivors on the Soviet-era Tupolev, which was taking the president, his wife and staff to events marking the 70th anniversary of the massacre of thousands of Polish officers by Soviet secret police.
The Army chief of staff, Gen. Franciszek Gagor, National Bank President Slawomir Skrzypek and Deputy Foreign Minister Andrzej Kremer were also on board, the Polish foreign ministry said.
The pilot was told Smolensk airport was closed because of thick fog, according to the news agency Interfax. He was offered a choice of landing instead in either Moscow or Minsk, the capital of Belarus. But he decided to continue with the original flight plan and land at Smolensk.
The pilot made three unsuccessful attempts to land before the crash. On the fourth try and plane fell apart, Interfax said, citing officials at Smolensk's interior ministry.
Russia's foreign ministry confirmed the cause of the air catastrophe was bad weather. "According to provisional information the crash happened because the plane failed to land at the military airport near Smolensk in conditions of severe fog,' one official aid.
The crash came as a stunning blow to Poland, killing many of the country’s top leaders and reviving, for some, the horror of the Katyn massacre.
“It is a damned place,” former president Aleksander Kwas’niewski 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.”
“This is a wound which will be very difficult to heal,” he said.
Former president Lech Walesa, who presided over Poland’s transition from communism, cast the crash in similar historic terms.“This is the second disaster after Katyn,” he told the news channel TVN-24. “They wanted to cut off our head there, and here the flower of our nation has also perished. Regardless of the differences, the intellectual class of those on the plane was truly great.”
Kaczynski also worked to acknowledge the Holocaust and the extermination of millions of Polish Jews during World War II, including honoring Poles who risked their lives to save Jews, and just recently giving a Polish national medal to the head of the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Israel:
On January 27, 2010, during a ceremony marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day held at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Poland, Polish President Lech Kaczyński awarded Chairman of the Yad Vashem Directorate Avner Shalev with the Officer’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland.
During the ceremony, which marked this year 65 years since the liberation of Auschwitz by the Soviet Army, speeches were delivered by the President and Prime Minister of Poland, the Prime Minister of Israel, international delegates and figures, and Holocaust survivors. Polish President Kaczyński also awarded decorations during the ceremony to United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Director Sara Bloomfield and Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum Director Dr. Piotr M.A. Cywiński.
The three decorations were awarded for “eminent services in educational and museum work commemorating the victims of the Nazi German labor camps, concentration camps, and extermination centers, and for their accomplishments in the development of the Polish-Jewish dialogue.”
This post will be updated as more information is available.