Russian Investigators Probe Cause of Polish Plane Crash

Russian investigators suggested human error may have been to blame in the plane crash that killed the Polish president and 95 others, saying Monday there were no technical problems with the Soviet-made plane.

The Crash

The Tu-154 went down Saturday while trying to land in dense fog near Smolensk airport in western Russia. All aboard were killed, including President Lech Kaczynski and dozens of Polish political, military and religious leaders.

They had been traveling in the Polish government-owned plane to attend a memorial at nearby Katyn forest for thousands of Polish military officers executed 70 years ago by Josef Stalin’s secret police.

The pilot had been warned of bad weather in Smolensk, and was advised by traffic controllers to land elsewhere, which would have delayed the Katyn observances. He was identified as Capt. Arkadiusz Protasiuk, 36, and the co-pilot as Maj. Robert Grzywna, 36. Also in the cockpit were Ensign Andrzej Michalak, 36, and Lt. Artur Zietek, 31.

In Warsaw, there was concern the pilots may have been asked by someone in the plane to land at Smolensk instead of diverting to Minsk or Moscow, in part to avoid missing the ceremonies.

In Warsaw, Polish Prosecutor General Andrzej Seremet said Polish investigators talked to the flight controller and flight supervisor and “concluded that there were no conditions for landing… The tower was advising against the landing,” he added. (The Globe & Mail)

The plane was equipped with an instrument landing system, or ILS, said Col. Wieslaw Grzegorzewski of the Polish Defence Ministry. “I can confirm the pilots were preparing for landing without the ILS system,” he said. “The airport didn’t have the ILS system.” (The Globe & Mail)

Russian media reports said the Smolensk airfield is a former military air base that lacks equipment for automatic landings.

Adam Bielan, an aide to Jaroslaw, said the two brothers spoke briefly Saturday morning when the president called his twin just before the plane crash to say they would be landing soon.

The Investigation

The business daily Kommersant said Monday that about 50 military personnel maintain the airport which is only used sporadically for official visits. It said the airfield has no permanent traffic controllers, and they are brought from the city of Tver when it’s necessary. Kommersant also said the pilots had been informed about the bad weather in the area while the plane was still over Belarus, but the captain said he would see conditions for himself and then make a decision.

Polish investigators said they will listen to the cockpit’s conversations recorded on the black boxes to see if there were “any suggestions made to the pilots” from other people aboard the plane.

Other Russian officials said the pilots were offered the chance to land in Moscow, Minsk or Vitebsk, but they chose Smolensk, despite four failed attempts before the fifth and fatal approach.

In remarks on Russian television, Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov told a government meeting including President Dmitry Medvedev that the data recorders on the plane were found to have been completely functional, which will allow a detailed analysis. “It is reliably confirmed that warning of the unfavourable weather conditions at the North airport and recommendations to go to a reserve airport were not only transmitted but received by the crew of the plane,” he said. (The Globe & Mail)

Russian investigators have almost finished reading the flight recorders, said Alexander Bastrykin, Russia’s chief investigator. “The readings confirm that there were no problems with the plane, and that the pilot was informed about the difficult weather conditions, but nevertheless decided to land,” Mr. Bastrykin said during a briefing with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in Smolensk. (The GLobe & Mail)

Poland’s ambassador to Moscow, Jerzy Bahr, warned against jumping to conclusions ahead of official inquiries. “Many people think that this is something which the pilot did wrong, but it must be investigated,” he told CNN.

Forensics experts from Poland and Russia were working to identify other bodies, including first lady Maria Kaczynski using DNA testing in many cases.

Health Minister Tatyana Golikova said that more than 130 relatives of the victims arrived in Moscow from Poland to help identify the deceased. “We expect the procedure to take two or three days. We will do our utmost to organize this work thoroughly and quickly,” Golikova said, according to her press office. (CNN)

The wreckage will remain on site through midweek to speed the investigation, Russian Deputy Transport Ministor Igor Levitin said.

Commentators in Poland have stressed the irony that so many senior figures were killed making a visit to commemorate victims of a massacre which targeted the elite of Poland’s officer corps. “This is so very much like Katyn, where our head was cut off,” said former President Lech Walesa. (BBC

Day Of Mourning

Both Russia and Ukraine declared a day of mourning Monday, as Poles struggled to come to terms with the tragedy that eliminated so many of their government and military leaders. Tens of thousands watched as Kaczynski’s body, returned Sunday to Warsaw was carried in a coffin by a hearse to the presidential palace. His twin brother, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the former prime minister, was present.

In Russia, flags flew at half mast and television channels canceled all entertainment programs. Large numbers of flowers were laid outside the Polish embassy in the capital as an indication of how the disaster on Saturday may ultimately help Russia and Poland bring to an end the hostility which has characterized their relations for so long.

Russia’s Prime Minster, who has been appointed to lead an inquiry into the crash, spoke Saturday at the crash site, where charred pieces of the airplane were strewn through a wooded area. Some pieces, including one of the wheel wells, were upside down. “As our first priority, we must establish the causes of this tragedy,” he said. “As a second priority, we must do everything in our power to assist the families and relatives of the deceased.” (CNN)

Russia’s handling of the tragedy has won some admiration in Poland. Witold Waszczykowsi, deputy head of Poland’s National Security Bureau and one of the few Kaczynski aides not to have been on Saturday’s ill-fated flight, was quoted by Reuters as saying: “We did not expect this gentle, kind approach, this personal involvement from Putin. Naturally, it will have a positive impact on the relationship between our countries.” (BBC)

In Poland, Mr. Bahr told Polish TV: “We can sense Russian solidarity at every step of the way.” (BBC)

The pavement in front of President Kaczynski’s palace in central Warsaw has nearly disappeared from sight, covered with thousands of small glass pots containing candles laid as a mark of respect, the BBC’s Duncan Kennedy reported from the city.

“He taught Poles how to respect our traditions, how to fight for our dignity, and he made his sacrifice there at that tragic place,” mourner Boguslaw Staron, 70, told the Associated Press news agency.

“I am truly impressed and really amazed, to be honest,” said Violetta Sajdak, 35, a teacher who was pushing her year-old son in a stroller on the main boulevard where crowds gathered to pay their respects to the president. Although she was worried about the fate of the conservatives, who lost many of their top leaders in the plane crash, she said the system had performed well. (New York Times)

Some mourners, however, were not as optimistic. “It will not be easy to find so many people to fill the shoes of all those lost,” said Alan Chmiel, 22, who works in a coffee shop. “The political situation is not stable.” (New York Times)

At UN headquarters in New York, the UN’s blue and white flag flew at half-staff Monday in Mr. Kaczynski’s memory. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon reiterated his “most profound condolence at such a tragic passing away of President Lech Kaczynski with whom I have been working very closely, especially on climate change.” (The Globe & Mail)

“The United Nations stands with the Polish people and government at this time of sorrow, and I hope they will be able to overcome this moment of sorrow,” Ki-moon said. (CNN)

An annual Holocaust memorial event at Auschwitz-Birkenau on Monday was honouring Mr. Kaczynski and the other victims. Organizers of the March of the Living – with some 10,000 Jewish youth marching over a mile between the two parts of the former Nazi death camp – said those marching would also remember those killed in Saturday’s crash.

In Canada, members of the Polish community were mourning the crash victims. In Toronto, people laid flowers at the Katyn Memorial at King Street and Roncesvalles Avenue in the city’s west end. In Vancouver, hundreds of mourners gathered at St. Casimir’s Polish Parish in East Vancouver on Sunday for a mass and memorial service.

Funeral Plans

Jacek Sasin, a spokesman for the Presidential Palace, said Mr. Kaczynski’s body would be sent to Warsaw on Tuesday. He said the bodies of the first couple would lie in state at the palace beginning Tuesday, their coffins closed, and the public would be permitted to view them. “We want every Pole who wants to pay tribute to the president, to be able to come and stand by the coffin,” he said. (The Globe & Mail) Mr. Sasin said that officials are now planning the funeral for Saturday but a final decision depends on when the bodies of all 96 victims are returned home. So far, 87 bodies have been recovered.

Mr. Medvedev has said he wants to attend, according to Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski.

Mr. Sasin said nothing has been changed in the living quarters of the president and his wife since they were there for breakfast Saturday. “I don’t think there is anyone who would want to change anything there. We still cannot believe what has happened,” he said. (The Globe & Mail)

Parliamentary Speaker Bronislaw Komorowski said he would call for early elections within 14 days, in line with the constitution. The vote must be held within another 60 days.

Other Victims

Among the victims Saturday was Ryszard Kaczrowski, 90, the last leader of Poland’s exiled government in London. The exile leadership was established during the Nazi occupation of Poland and continued to declare itself the rightful government during the decades of communism, until Lech Walesa became Poland’s first popularly elected president in 1990.

The crash also took an icon of Poland’s Solidarity freedom movement, 80-year-old Anna Walentynowicz. Workers at the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk went on strike when Walentynowicz was fired from her job as a crane operator in August 1980 for her opposition activity.

That sparked strikes that spread to other plants across the nation, giving rise to the movement that helped bring about the demise of communism in Poland nine years later.

The electoral mechanisms to replace the officials among the 96 people killed on the plane were functioning according to plan, and senior Polish officials reassured the public that the government would continue to operate normally.

Military leaders were immediately succeeded on an interim basis by their subordinates. The first deputy president of the National Bank, Piotr Wiesiolek, assumed the duties of the institution’s president. The bank issued a statement saying it was “functioning without disruption and performing all of the statutory tasks of the central bank.” (New York Times)

Despite the devastation, said Roman Kuzniar, a professor at Warsaw University’s Institute of International Relations, politicians were handling a terrible situation effectively and with unexpected composure. “From the state point of view, simply the political point of view, I’m rather calm,” he said. “I see the behavior of the highest representatives of my country, the prime minister, the speaker of the Parliament and others, and they behave in an impeccable way, and that’s why I feel so reassured that nothing dangerous, wrong or irresponsible might happen.” (New York Times)

Such unity in the face of tragic loss of life can be short-lived, and Poles were unsure how the effort to return to something approximating business as usual would play out when the government returns to work on Monday.

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