Poland President Killed As Plane Crashes In Russia The Polish president and many political and military leaders were killed in a plane crash in Russia on Saturday. Officials say 97 people died as the plane was attempting to land. The Polish visitors were due to attend a ceremony marking the 65th anniversary of the Katyn massacre, where 20,000 members of the Polish elite were executed by Soviet secret police. NPR's Eric Westervelt speaks to Linda Wertheimer from the presidential palace in Warsaw.

Poland President Killed As Plane Crashes In Russia

The Polish president and many political and military leaders were killed in a plane crash in Russia on Saturday. Officials say 97 people died as the plane was attempting to land. The Polish visitors were due to attend a ceremony marking the 65th anniversary of the Katyn massacre, where 20,000 members of the Polish elite were executed by Soviet secret police. NPR's Eric Westervelt speaks to Linda Wertheimer from the presidential palace in Warsaw.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Guy Raz is away. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

Shock and grief ripped through Poland today as people there observe the news a plane crash killed their president, first lady and top military leaders as well as senior government officials and several members of parliament. In all, 97 people were killed.

President Lech Kaczynski was leading an official delegation traveling to Russia to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the massacre of Polish officers by the Red Army during the Second World War. The plane crashed in Western Russia this morning in heavy fog short of the runway.

NPR's Eric Westervelt joins us now from outside the presidential palace in Warsaw where Poles have gathered all day long to pay tribute to the dead.

Eric, I know it's evening there by now. What's the scene?

ERIC WESTERVELT: Yeah, it's getting late here, but still thousands, I would say tens of thousands of Poles are pouring through this presidential square. They're leaving candles. They're leaving cards. They're leaving flowers. There are so many people, but it's a very quiet, somber atmosphere. People are just walking past the presidential palace quietly.

And the people we've talked to are really expressing a deep sense of shock that, you know, this wasn't just the president and first lady, which is shocking enough, that got killed. We're talking, in addition, the head of the air force, the head of the army, the head of special forces, the head of the navy, their chairman of the joint chiefs, the chief of national security, the head of the Polish Central Bank, two presidential candidates who are also members of parliament, several other senior officials. I mean, the list goes on. This was a serious and devastating blow to the Polish government and leadership.

WERTHEIMER: Are you seeing people there from across the political spectrum coming out to mourn this loss?

WESTERVELT: We are, so far. I mean, President Kaczynski was a popular but controversial figure. He certainly clashed some of the foreign policy issues with the European Union and not every Poles sort of bought his version of conservation nationalism. But I think, temporarily anyway, you are seeing Poles come together to express their grief and to mourn this loss. But whether that will, you know, will last or will just be temporary like what happened when Pope John Paul II died is unclear now.

WERTHEIMER: Take us through what you know about the crash at this point?

WESTERVELT: Well, what we know is that upon approach - witnesses and investigators so far say they believe the plane, which is a 26-year-old Russian-made Tupolev aircraft, the Polish version of, sort of, Air Force One, clipped trees upon approach to this airport in Western Russia.

Russian media is reporting that air traffic control warned the pilot several times that there were dangerous fog conditions, that he should not attempt to land and that he should, in fact, divert to one of two other airports. And they're reporting that the pilot, it was up to his discretion, ignored that advice and the tragedy is what happened.

WERTHEIMER: Is there any sense that question should be asked about what caused the crash, aging aircraft, anything like that?

WESTERVELT: I think Poles are going to ask those questions. And I think they're also going to look to the recovery and investigation efforts to see if the black box does in fact reveal, you know, what happened. Did the pilot ignore advice or did something else occur?

WERTHEIMER: NPR's Eric Westervelt reporting from outside the presidential palace in Warsaw. Eric, thank you very much.

WESTERVELT: Thank you, Linda.

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