Polish president, top elites killed in plane crash By Robert Strybel, Our Warsaw Correspondent
Polish president, top elites killed in plane crash By Robert Strybel, Our Warsaw Correspondent

70 years later – Katyń II

Polish President, top elites killed in plane crash
By Robert Strybel, Our Warsaw Correspondent

WARSAW–Hundreds of Katyń Family members had arrived from Poland aboard by special trains and were waiting for 70th-anniversary observances at the memorial to thousands of Polish officers, professionals and intellectuals murdered in 1940 by Stalin’s NKVD. The presidential party, including some of Poland’s top leaders, were due to arrive by plane at Russia’s nearby Smolensk airport and then drive to Katyń in a motorcade. But strange rumors began circulating – something had gone wrong, the plane had experienced problems and eventually the reports began speaking of an air crash.

Media chaos ensued, as the journalists covering the Katyń ceremonies tried to rebase to the Russian military airport which was off limits to unauthorized personnel. Gradually the pieces began falling into place. President Lech Kaczyński and First Lady Maria Kaczyńska together with 94 others, including some of Poland’s top civilian and military leaders, had been killed, when their antiquated Soviet-designed plane crashed while trying to land in heavy fog.

           It was one of the greatest tragedies in Polish history, compared by some to another Katyń. Among the victims were several members of the presidential cabinet, 17 lawmakers, 10 generals, several army chaplains and numerous Poles who had lost loved ones in the 1940 massacre. The list included the armed forces chief of staff and the commanders of all branches of the services, Sławomir Skrzypek, the president of the National Bank of Poland, Janusz Kurtyka, the head of the National Remembrance Institute (IPN) which researches and prosecutes communist crimes. The conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party, established by Kaczyński and his twin brother Jarosław, lost an inordinate percentage of its leadership in the crash.

           A tragic death was also met by such legendary figures as Ryszard Kaczorowski, 91, the last president of the London-based Polish Exile Governments, and Anna Walentynowicz, the crane operator whose firing sparked off the 1980 Gdańsk Shipyard strike that led to the emergence of Solidarity. Kaczyński, 60, was the first officiating Polish leader to perish in an air disaster since the 1943 plane crash off Gibraltar of exiled war-time Prime Minister General Władysław Sikorski.

             In accordance with the Polish Constitution, Bronisław Komorowski, the Marshal of the Sejm (speaker of the lower house of parliament), ordered a week of national mourning, and said snap presidential elections would be held by the end of June. Under Polish law, he is obliged to announce new elections within two weeks of the presiding president’s death or incapacitation and schedule the polls within a two-month period thereafter.

            Komorowski is the ruling Civic Platform (PO) party’s presidential candidate in elections originally set for October. Kaczyński had yet to announce he would run for re-election, but observers felt he was about to do so. PiS is running far below the PO in popularity polls, but some believe the tragedy may generate a sympathy vote for the opposition candidate, probably the young and handsome former justice minister, Zbigniew Ziobro.

            There have been no hints that foul play had been behind the disaster, but a full-blown investigation has been launched by both the Polish and Russian side. Russian witnesses said one of the plane’s wing had struck treetops as it came in for the landing, went out of control and crashed. Russian air controllers claimed the Polish pilots had ignored their instructions not to decrease altitude and  to land at an alternative airfield nearby.

            Meanwhile, thousands of Poles flocked the Warsaw’ Presidential Palace to pay their respects. They brought flowers, lit votive lamps, sang religious hymns and prayed. Special masses were held throughout the country, sporting events were called off and the giant Zygmunt’s Bell in Kraków’s Wawel Cathedral sounded for the first time since the death of Pope John Paul II. And condolences poured in from all over the world.

            “Today’s loss is devastating to Poland, to the United States, and to the world,” US President Barack Obama said in a statement. “President Kaczyński was a distinguished statesman who played a key role in the Solidarity movement and was widely admired in the United States as a leader dedicated to advancing freedom and human dignity.” His predecessor George W. Bush said he and former first lady Laura Bush were “deeply saddened” by the deaths and called President Kaczynski “a strong defender of freedom and a friend to the United States. Laura and I have fond memories of our visits with the president and Maria.”

            It is still to early to speculate as to what the long-range ramifications of  this tragedy might be. But there is little no that, except in wars and violent revolutions, the upper echelons of a country’s political and military establishment are rarely devastated to this extent in a single stroke. Prime Minister Donald Tusk, traditionally a  political foe of Kaczyński, called the crash “a tragedy the modern world has not seen” and traveled to the Katyń-area site. For the time, the prevalent view is that Poles should set aside their differences and pull together in this time of trial.  At least during the week of national mourning.