Clues are beginning to emerge in the tragic plane crash that killed Polish President Lech Kaczynski: Investigators have ruled out mechanical problems, instead blaming human error. They're now reviewing black box recordings to learn why the pilot failed to heed warnings not to land in thick fog.
Tragedy Devastates the Country
En route to commemorating one of Poland’s most traumatic events of the 20th century, a plane crash killed the Polish president and numerous senior officials on Saturday morning. All 97 people on board were killed in a crash landing near the Russian town of Smolensk as members of the Polish government were on their way to honor the 70th anniversary of the massacre of 22,000 Polish prisoners at Katyn during Stalin’s reign in 1940.
The pilot attempted a landing despite warnings from air traffic controllers to divert to another airport due to heavy fog. Moscow and Minsk, the capital of Belarus, were viable options, but left unheeded. “When they did not implement this order, [air traffic controllers] several times gave orders to divert to an alternative airport,” said a member from the Russian air force. “ Despite this, the crew continued the descent. Unfortunately this ended in tragedy.” The plane clipped trees during its descent, plunging into the forest 300 yards short of the landing strip.
Click to View Images of a Nation in Mourning
How Dangerous Was the Plane?
Aviation expert Clive Irving writes it was astonishing that members of the government were flying in a plane as old as a Tupolev-154. In the airline food chain, the Tu-154 is more likely to be found in Africa flying for a non-regulated and nameless carrier on arms-running or drug missions.
In 2003, the then-Polish Prime Minister Leszek Miller was lucky to survive crashing in an even older Soviet design, the Mi-8 helicopter that he was using. Yesterday, Miller told the Polish media, “I once said that we will one day meet in a funeral procession, and that is when we will take the decision to replace the aircraft fleet.” READ MORE >>
Poland Mourns the Dea
Tens of thousands of people in Warsaw watched a procession of full military honor carry the coffin of President Lech Kaczynski through the streets today. Kaczynski, 60, and his wife Maria, 66, an economist, were among the dead that included chief of the general staff Franciszek Gagor, the president of the central bank, Slawomir Skrzypek, the deputy parliamentary speaker, Jerzy Szmajdzinski, and the deputy foreign minister, Andrzej Kremer. Also included in the death toll is the secretary at the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage Tomasz Merta, who was responsible for Poland’s monuments and the official who would have been in charge of overseeing the commemoration of a similar tragedy.
“The loss of one person has a huge effect,” said Father Andrzej Kolaczkowski, who held a special Polish Mass. “But the loss of 96 people who also played an important role in Polish politics and Polish social life is very, very daunting.”
Tension Over Katyn Strains Polish-Russian Relations
The crash could have a strong effect on Polish-Russian relations that have been strained due to Poland’s close relationship to the U.S. and tensions over the Katyn massacre the president was intending on honoring. “Katyn has been the most difficult issue up to the present moment. Everyone in Poland knows that the Katyn massacre was a very small part of a systematic effort by Russians to get rid of a whole class of Polish people,” said James Sherr, the head of think-tank Chatham House.
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin attended a commemoration of the massacre earlier in the week, becoming the first Russian leader to do so. Putin, who blamed Stalin’s “ totalitarian” regime for the deaths, stood alongside Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk in what many saw as a show of solidarity between the two countries. Kaczynski was not invited to Putin’s event, however, though he was determined to attend the commemoration on Saturday. He did not have intentions “to inflame relations with Russia,” but to show support for the 400 relatives of victims expected to be in attendance.
In his book Lenin’s Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire, David Remnick wrote Stalin had ordered the death of thousands of Polish military officers in a month-long operation to “begin the domination of Poland.” Stalin had seen the young officers as potential danger, having been some of Poland’s best educated. In a preemptive strike, Stalin murdered them and blamed their deaths on the Nazis, using the Kremlin propaganda machine to fabricate a web of lies in speeches, textbooks and diplomatic negotiations.
As explained in this documentary, the Katyn forest was the site of a massacre of Polish officers and already had its own tragic place in Polish history.
In 1990, Mikhail Gorbachev turned over the Katyn files to the Polish government and excavations began to dig up the mass graves from 50 years before. “The Polish people would learn the truth about the massacres in the forests of Kalinin, Katyn, and Starobelsk and the origins of their country’s subjugation to Moscow,” writes Remnick. “History, when it returned, was unforgiving.”
What’s Next for Their Government?
For Poland, the only good news might be that the government is not run by a presidential system so the government should continue to function, said Tomas Valasek from the Center for European Reform. "This is a political earthquake, a lot of leaders have perished, and first we have to let this moment of shock pass. But the reality is that the Kaczynskis [referring to the late president and his identical twin brother Jaroslaw] were not very popular in Poland," said an analyst. An election will be held within the next 60 days and acting president Bronislaw Komorowski is expected to take the reins officially.
The U.S. Reaches Out
Since the fall of communism, Poland and the U.S. have been firm allies. The European Union member sent troops to Iraq and recently bolstered U.S. forces in Afghanistan with an additional 2,600 soldiers.
On Saturday, President Barack Obama called the Polish Prime Minister Tusk expressing his condolences in the face of the tragedy. “Today’s loss is devastating to Poland, to the United States and to the world,” read the White House statement. “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 shape our nation.”
In 2008, Kaczynski and Tusk conditioned a deal to host long-range missile-defense interceptors and later this year, U.S. Patriot missiles were expected to be set up in Poland. The deal was written up under the Bush administration, but after coming under fire from Russia was altered by Obama’s administration to host a different type of missile defense and with a delayed date of 2018. Despite the tragic events, David Gregory, moderator of Meet the Press, doesn’t expect much change in U.S-Poland ties immediately. “There’s enough continuity in the Polish government, thankfully, that some of that area of cooperation can continue.”