By Frank James
In a tragedy of staggering and historic proportions for Poland, its President Lech Kaczynski and many other of its leaders were killed in a plane crash Saturday as they headed to ceremonies marking the World War II massacre by the Soviets of thousands of Polish officers.
News reports are that the plane, a Soviet-era Tupolev, crashed in heavy fog as it attempted a landing in the Smolensk federation in Western Russia. Ninety six people were killed.
Kaczynski, age 60, and his wife Maria were both among the dead, as were a number of senior Polish officials, including the head of the nation's central bank, Slawomir Skrzypek and a number of military and other leaders.
On board were the army chief of staff, 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, the Polish foreign ministry said.
Russia's Emergency Ministry said there were 96 dead, 88 part of a Polish state delegation. Poland's Foreign Ministry spokesman, Piotr Paszkowski, said there were 89 people on the passenger list but one person had not shown up for the roughly 1 1/2-hour flight from Warsaw's main airport.
"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," Paszkowski said. "We can assume with great certainty that all persons on board have been killed."
In an inescapable irony, the death of Kaczynski and so many senior officials of his government, came as they were set to commemorate the infamous massacre of thousands of Polish military officers and many members of the nation's intelligentsia, by the Soviet secret police during World War II in the Russia's Katyn forest.
The Katyn massacre of tens of thousands of Poles, which the Russians blamed for decades on the Nazis, has come to be viewed as among the worst of the Stalin-era atrocities.
According to a Google translation of a story on the Polish PAP news agency website, the plane was a Tu-154. To observers at the crash scene, it appeared the plane may have clipped trees at the end of the runway on the last of several landing attempts.
AccuWeather, the U.S. weather service, reports severe fog in the area at time of the crash.
State College, Pa. -- 10 April 2010 -- AccuWeather.com reports weather likely played a significant role in the plane crash that killed Poland's president Lech Kaczynski on Saturday morning. Accuweather.com meteorologists studied the weather closely at the time of the crash in Smolensk, Russia, and indications show that very dense fog was present before the plane went down.
The observations show that fog became very dense an hour before the crash. The visibility at ground level was only a couple hundred yards at the time of the crash. But skies were clear above that for the plane's decent.
Winds were light and do not appear to have been a factor in the crash.
According to the news agency Interfax, the Smolensk Airport was closed due to the thick fog and poor visibility before the crash. The pilot was instructed to land at either Minsk to the west or Moscow to the east. The plane crashed after the pilot's fourth attempt to land at the closed airport.
Russian President Dmitri Medvedev has launched an investigation into the crash and has put Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin at the head of it, according to the PAP report.
PAP also reports that when Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk was informed of the crash and deaths, he cried.
He also called an extraordinary cabinet meeting and declared a national week of mourning.
PAP provides a gallery of file photos of Kaczynski in and around an airplane that presumably was the presidential aircraft.
President Barack Obama issued a statement on the death of Kaczynski, his wife, and many other Polish officials:
Today, I called Polish Prime Minister Tusk to express Michelle's and my deepest condolences to the people of Poland on the tragic deaths this morning of President Lech Kaczynski, First Lady Maria Kaczynski, and all who were traveling with them to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Katyn massacre. Our thoughts and prayers are with the Kaczynski family, the loved ones of those killed in this tragic plane crash, and the Polish nation.
Today's loss is devastating to Poland, to the United States, and to the world. President Kaczynski was a distinguished statesman who played a key role in the Solidarity movement, and he was widely admired in the United States as a leader dedicated to advancing freedom and human dignity. With him were many of Poland's most distinguished civilian and military leaders who have helped to shape Poland's inspiring democratic transformation. We join all the people of Poland in mourning their passing.
Today, there are heavy hearts across America. The United States cherishes its deep and abiding bonds with the people of Poland. Those bonds are represented in the strength of our alliance, the friendships among our people, and the extraordinary contributions of Polish-Americans who have helped to shape our nation.
It is a testament to the strength of the Polish people that those who were lost were travelling to commemorate a devastating massacre of World War II as the leaders of a strong, vibrant, and free Poland. That strength will ensure that Poland emerges from the depths of this unthinkable tragedy, and that the legacy of the leaders who died today will be a light that continues to guide Poland -- and the world -- in the direction of human progress.
Kaczynski was part of an unusual political story. At one time, he and his identical twin brother, Jaroslaw, held the top two posts in Poland. His brother was prime minister until his defeat by Tusk in 2007.
Kaczynski had been part of the Solidarity movement which in the 1980s led to the end of Poland's communist regime and began its democratization. After being elected to the Polish parliament, then appointed to government positions, he became mayor of Warsaw.
His official biography on the Polish government website makes Kaczynski sound like a Polish version of Rudy Giuliani.
On November 18th, 2002 he won a direct election for Mayor of the City of Warsaw with a considerable majority. He started his term of office in the capital city under slogans calling for the elimination of corruption and restoration of law and order. He took some effective actions which have improved security in the city.
He became president in 2004.