A stunned Poland mourns loss of its governing elite

Body of Polish President killed in Russian crash flown home to Warsaw where huge crowds line streets.

Draped in a red and white Polish flag, the body of Lech Kaczynski was ceremoniously returned to Warsaw yesterday, as millions turned out to mourn the head of state and 95 other victims of a plane crash described as Poland's worst political tragedy since the Second World War.

The plane carrying the 60-year-old President, his wife and senior religious, political and military figures crashed and exploded while trying to land in thick fog in western Russia on Saturday morning. Everyone on board was killed. The party had been travelling to a ceremony at the site of the Katyn massacre, in which the Soviet secret police executed thousands of members of Poland's professional and officer classes in 1940.

Saturday's crash killed a major and significant section of the country's governing elite in a single and shocking blow to Poland. Donald Tusk, Poland's Prime Minister, who reportedly burst into tears when informed, described the incident as "The worst national political tragedy Poland has experienced since the Second World War."

Some 30 hours after the crash, a military plane bearing the late President's body arrived at Warsaw's main airport; waiting to receive it were Mr Tusk and President Kaczynski's twin brother, the former conservative prime minister, Jaroslaw Kaczynski. The President's daughter, Marta, knelt before her father's coffin sobbing and pressing her forehead against its side.

The coffin was then carried by a squad of Polish soldiers marching in slow time to a waiting hearse, and was driven to the capital's presidential palace. The President's body is expected to lie in state for several days before a full state funeral is held.

Tens of thousands of Warsaw residents lined the roads from the airport to the city centre to pay tribute as the coffin passed with its motorcycle police escort. The stunned nation is observing a week of national mourning. This began with two minutes silence yesterday, after which church bells rang out and air-raid sirens wailed eerily across the country.

The presidential palace rapidly turned into a shrine for the crash victims. A sea of candles in glass holders and thousands of red and white flowers covered the pavements in front of the building. Traffic was brought to a standstill as hundreds carrying roses and candles joined a long queue to sign a book of condolences inside the palace.

Millions attended special Sunday Masses to mourn the dead throughout Poland. In Krakow, an ancient church bell that is only rung on occasions of national disaster pealed out across the rooftops as thousands turned out in the pouring rain. Many compared the occasion to mourning ceremonies held in Poland following the death of the Polish Pope John Paul II in April 2005.

Kaczynski was founder of Poland's controversial nationalist and conservative Law and Justice Party. A former adviser to the once-banned Solidarity trade union and a champion of traditional Polish values, he was lauded by conservatives but disliked by Polish liberals. During his tenure Poland's relations with its EU neighbours and its erstwhile enemies, Germany and Russia, were for the most part strained.

"He taught Poles how to respect our traditions and how to fight for our dignity," said Bogulsav Staron, 70, who was one of the mourners outside the palace. "He made his sacrifice, there at that tragic place," he added.

"I didn't much like the President's politics, I was no fan of his, but I have come here to mourn anyway. This is too big a tragedy to ignore," said another man who stood outside the palace with a candle in his hand.

The crash has left a gaping hole in Poland's military, political and religious establishment. The 96 killed included two bishops, the chiefs of staff of both the Polish army and navy, the head of the president's chancellery, the head of the Olympic Committee, the country's human rights commissioner and the central bank president.

Officials in Warsaw made efforts to assure the public that the armed forces and the government would continue to function, with acting heads named for the military services as well as for the central bank.

However it was still not clear what political implications the crash would have. Under the Polish constitution, President Kaczynski's role has been temporarily assumed by the speaker of parliament, Bronislaw Komorowski. As Acting President, he has declared that he will announce a date for a presidential election to be held within 14 days. Polling would then have to take place within the following 60 days.

The late President's wife, Maria Kaczynska, was also killed in the plane crash, as was 80-year-old Anna Walentynowicz, the former Gdansk shipyard worker whose sacking in 1980 led to the formation of the Solidarity union, which eventually overthrew Polish Communism.

Lech Walesa, the former Solidarity leader, Nobel Peace Prize winner and former Polish president signed a book of condolences in his home in Gdansk: "The elite of our country has perished. This is the second disaster after Katyn," he said. Among the dead were some relatives of the estimated 22,000 Polish officers and other professionals executed by Stalin's secret police at Katyn and other sites in the region.

The tragic irony of the accident occurring almost exactly 70 years after that massacre was not lost on leading Polish figures. Former president Alexander Kwasniewski said: "This is a wound that will be very difficult to heal."

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
Buttoned up: Ryan Reynolds with Helen Mirren in ‘Woman in Gold’
filmFor every box-office smash in his Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. Now he says it's time for a reboot
News
people
News
Actress Julianne Moore wins the Best Actress in a Leading Role Award for 'Still Alice' during the 87th Annual Academy Awards in Hollywood, California
people
Sport
Ross Barkley
footballPaul Scholes says it's time for the Everton playmaker to step up and seize the England No 10 shirt
News
'We will fix it': mice in the 1970s children’s programme Bagpuss
science
Life and Style
2 Karl Lagerfeld and Choupette
fashion
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Executive

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Retail Buyer / Ecommerce Buyer

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Working closely with the market...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - CAD Software Solutions Sales

£20000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A reputable company, famed for ...

Ashdown Group: Client Accountant Team Manager - Reading

Negotiable: Ashdown Group: The Ashdown Group has been engaged by a highly resp...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

War with Isis

Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

A spring in your step?

Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head

Hack Circus: Technology, art and learning

Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head. Rhodri Marsden meets mistress of ceremonies Leila Johnston
Sevenoaks is split over much-delayed decision on controversial grammar school annexe

Sevenoaks split over grammar school annexe

If Weald of Kent Grammar School is given the go-ahead for an annexe in leafy Sevenoaks, it will be the first selective state school to open in 50 years
10 best compact cameras

A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
Paul Scholes column: Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now

Paul Scholes column

Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now
Why Michael Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

Why Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

Manchester United's talented midfielder has played international football for almost 14 years yet, frustratingly, has won only 32 caps, says Sam Wallace
Tracey Neville: The netball coach who is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

Tracey Neville is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

The former player on how she is finding time to coach both Manchester Thunder in the Superleague and England in this year's World Cup
General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?