Polish President, Dignitaries Killed in Plane Crash
(April 10) -- Poland's president, his wife and some of the country's most prominent military and civilian leaders died this morning when their plane crashed while coming in for a landing in thick fog in western Russia. There were no survivors aboard the plane, which carried 97 people.
President Lech Kaczynski and his wife Maria were heading to Russia's Smolensk region to mark the 70th anniversary of the Katyn massacre, where Soviet secret police killed thousands of Polish officers during World War II.
"The Polish presidential plane did not make it to the runway while landing. Tentative findings indicate that it hit the treetops and fell apart," Smolensk's governor, Sergei Anufriev, told Russian TV. "Nobody has survived the disaster."
Russia's Emergency Minister Sergei Shoigu said there were 97 dead, 88 of whom were part of the Polish state delegation. Initial signs pointed to an accident with no indication of foul play.
Local media showed footage of the crash site, where firefighters sprayed water on smoldering wreckage strewn through a wooded area. A tail fin with Poland's red and white flag colors stuck up from the debris. The plane reportedly went down less than 400 yards from an airport runway.
Poland's presidential plane was a Soviet-built Tupolev TU154M, at least 20 years old. Officials have long considered replacing the Polish fleet, but said they lacked the funds. The exact plane involved in today's crash was fully overhauled in December, including repairs to three engines and updating navigation equipment, an aviation director told Russian TV. He said there was no doubt that the plane was flightworthy.
According to the Aviation Safety Network, there have been 66 crashes involving Tu-154s, including six in the past five years. Russia recently withdrew its Tu-154 fleet from service.
Also among the dead were the chief of staff of the Polish army, the national bank president, deputy foreign minister, army chaplain, head of the National Security Office, deputy parliament speaker, civil rights commissioner and at least two presidential aides and three lawmakers.
Poland's President Lech Kaczynski
Mindaugas Kulbis, AP
Polish President Lech Kaczynski and the other passengers were heading to Russia's Smolensk region to mark the 70th anniversary of the Katyn massacre when their plane went down.
"We still cannot fully understand the scope of this tragedy and what it means for us in the future. Nothing like this has ever happened in Poland," the country's Foreign Ministry spokesman, Piotr Paszkowski, told The Associated Press. "We can assume with great certainty that all persons on board have been killed."
For some, the plane crash evoked haunting memories of the Katyn massacre.
"It is a damned place," former president Aleksander Kwas'niewski told Polish TV. "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.
The crash could also be a setback for Polish-Russian relations, which had been on the mend after decades of mistrust over the Katyn massacre. Russia never apologized for the murders of some 22,000 Polish officers, but Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's decision to attend today's memorial ceremony was seen as a gesture of goodwill. Putin has been appointed head of a commission investigating today's crash, the Kremlin said.
"Russia shares the grief and mourning of Poland," Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said in a Kremlin statement. "Please accept the most sincere condolences to the Polish people, words of compassion and support to relatives and friends of those who perished."