The body of Poland’s President Lech Kaczynski, who was killed in a plane crash in Russia along with his wife and 94 others, has arrived back in Warsaw.
By Matthew Day in Warsaw
Published: 3:22PM BST 11 Apr 2010
His twin brother Jaroslaw knelt on the ground and pressed his head against the flag-draped coffin before rising and c
The 60-year-old president had been travelling to Russia to take part in official commemorations to mark the 70th anniversary of a massacre of thousands of Polish officers by the Soviet Union.
The coffin was escorted by 10 soldiers from the back of the plane as sombre music played. Warsaw Archbishop Kazimierz Nycz was among seven priests and military chaplains who led prayers at the airport and sprinked holy water on the coffin.
Marta Kaczynska, the only child of the president and his wife, Maria, was also present.
Thousands of people stood silent in the streets to mourn Mr Kaczynski and the dozens of political, military and religious leaders killed in a Russian plane crash that ravaged the top levels of Poland’s elite.
Russian investigators have ruled out technical faults as a cause of the plane crash, adding to speculation that pilot error was to blame
The president’s aircraft crashed as it approached Smolensk airport in western Russia on Saturday morning.
Eyewitnesses said that Tupolev Tu-154 of the presidential flight slammed into the ground and exploded after clipping some trees as it came into land.
A clearly shocked Donald Tusk, the Polish prime minister, described the event as the “most tragic event in Poland’s post-war history”.
“I want to express my condolences to the family of President Kaczynski, his daughter, his mother, granddaughter, brother, and all the families who lost their lives in Smolensk. I pass on the condolences of all Poles,” he continued, adding that he would travel to Smolensk to go to the crash site.
Lech Walesa, for long a political adversary of the late president, made clear his sense of shock.
“The Soviets killed Polish elites in Katyn 70 years ago. Today, the Polish elite died there while getting ready to pay homage to the Poles killed there,” he said.
In a statement Gordon Brown said he “was shocked and saddened by the news”, adding that Poland’s president “would be mourned across the world and remembered as a passionate patriot and democrat.” President Obama was also quick to express his sadness over the death of a man who had been a steadfast supporter of US foreign policy.
Speaking in a television address, Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian president, put aside his country’s fraught relationship with Poland. “In the name of the Russian people, I offer my deepest, truest condolences to the Polish people, feelings of compassion and support for the relatives and loved ones of those killed,” he said.
Under the Polish constitution Bronislaw Komorowski, the speaker of parliament, has become acting head of state.
Along with the president, the crash claimed the lives of the head of the Polish armed forces, the head of the Polish national bank, the deputy foreign minister and a number of army’s most senior commanders.
The death of President Kaczynski blows a massive hole in Poland’s political landscape. The president, a dominant force in Polish politics over the past ten years, was due to contest a presidential election in October. But now, under the dictates of the constitution, acting President Komorowski has 14 days to declare a new date for elections that must be held in the next 74 days.
The question as to who from President Kaczynski’s Law and Justice party will contest the election has been made harder to answer owing to the crash also claiming the lives of several of the party’s senior members.
President Kaczynski’s identical twin brother Jaroslaw, a former prime minister, could run for office, but political experts have speculated that he might prefer to stay out of the political limelight given his brother’s death.
But for most Poles last night, elections were at the back their minds as they struggled to come to terms with an accident that has erased all political barriers and united the nation in grief.
In an act of spontaneous mourning, thousands upon thousands gathered outside the presidential palace in central Warsaw to lay flowers, light candles and pray for the victims. Flags were lowered to half mast, and across the country people put out the red and white national flag, draped in black ribbon.
Television presenters struggled to control their emotions as they read through the list of dead. As news of the crash broke at the Katyn memorial in Russia, where the president had been due to lead the commemorations, many Poles broke down in tears. People were also demanding to know just what caused the crash.
Russian authorities cited eyewitness that said the president’s plane had hit trees as it tried to land on the third attempt at a foggy Smolensk airport.
“As it was preparing for landing, the Polish president’s aircraft did not make it to the landing strip,” Smolensk regional governor Sergei Antufiev told Russian TV. “According to preliminary reports, it got caught up in the tops of trees, fell to the ground and broke up into pieces.” Graphic television footage of the crash site, showing the shattered and burning remains of the aircraft, bore testament to the ferocity of the impact.
A Russian mission control official who was present during conversations with the pilot said he had ignored advice.
“The pilot was advised to fly to Moscow or Minsk because of heavy fog, but he still decided to land. No one should have been landing in that fog,” he told Reuters, on condition his name was not published.
One investigator speculated that pilot error may have caused the crash, but authorities stressed that only after examination of the aircraft black boxes, both of which have been recovered, could they make any statement as to the cause.
Questions were also being asked in Poland as to why so many important people were on one flight, and why the Polish state had failed to replace the aging Tu-154, which was often grounded for repairs, with a more modern aircraft.
Published in the Telegraph: