WARSAW — A plane carrying the Polish president and dozens of the country’s top political and military leaders to the site of the Soviet massacre of Polish officers in World War II crashed in western Russia on Saturday, killing everyone on board.
President Lech Kaczynski’s plane tried to land in a thick fog, missing the runway and snagging treetops about half a mile from the airport in Smolensk, scattering chunks of flaming fuselage across a bare forest.
The crash came as a stunning blow to Poland, wiping out a large portion of the country’s leadership in one fiery explosion. And in a bizarre twist, it happened at the moment that Russia and Poland were beginning to come to terms with the killing of more than 20,000 members of Poland’s elite officer corps in the same place 70 years ago.
“It is a damned place,” former President Aleksander Kwasniewski told TVN24. “It sends shivers down my spine.”
“This is a wound which will be very difficult to heal,” he said.
A top Russian military official said air traffic controllers at the Smolensk airport had several times ordered the crew of the plane not to land, warned that it was descending below the glide path, and recommended it reroute to another airport.
“Nevertheless, the crew continued the descent,” said Lt. Gen. Aleksandr Alyoshin, the first deputy chief of the Russian Air Force Staff. “Unfortunately, the result was tragic.”
Russian emergency officials said 97 people were killed. They included Poland’s deputy foreign minister and a dozen members of Parliament, the chiefs of the army and the navy, and the president of the national bank. They included Anna Walentynowicz, 80, the former dock worker whose firing in 1980 set off the Solidarity strike that ultimately overthrew Polish Communism, as well as relatives of victims of the massacre that they were on their way to commemorate.
Poles united in their grief in a way that recalled the death of the Polish pope, John Paul II, five years ago. Thousands massed outside the Presidential Palace, laying flowers and lighting candles.
Magda Niemczyk, a 24-year-old student, held a single tulip. “I wanted to be together with the other Polish people,” she said.
“It’s a national tragedy,” said Ryszard Figurski, 70, a retired telecommunications worker. “Apart from their official positions, it is also simply the loss of so many lives.”
Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski, one of the highest-ranking Polish leaders not on board the plane, told Poland’s Radio Zet that he was the one to inform Prime Minister Donald Tusk, who “was in tears when he heard about the catastrophe.”
Devastating as the loss was, its connection with the 1940 massacre at Katyn shocked the nation. The crash happened days after Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin became the first Russian leader to join Polish officials in commemorating the massacre, a wound that has festered between the two countries for decades and to Poles symbolized Russian domination.
Former President Lech Walesa, who presided over Poland’s transition from Communism, called the crash “the second disaster after Katyn.”
“They wanted to cut off our head there, and here the flower of our nation has also perished,” he said.
The repercussions on Poland’s coming presidential elections were far from clear. The Law and Justice Party lost numerous important leaders in addition to the president, including its parliamentary leader. Mr. Kaczynski had been trailing far behind his opponent in the polls, but the outpouring of sympathy from the mourning public might benefit his party in the moved-up presidential election.
Under Poland’s Constitution, the leader of the lower house of Parliament, now acting president, has 14 days to announce new elections, which must then take place within 60 days.
While the crash is not likely to substantially change Poland’s relationships with other countries, including its plans to host part of an American missile defense system, it could agitate Poland’s relationship with Russia.
This article was reported by Nicholas Kulish, Ellen Barry and Michal Piotrowski, and written by Ms. Barry/The New York Times