4/10/10

A Tragic Day for Poland

Earlier today a Russian airliner took the lives of Poland President Lech Kaczynski, his wife, and 95 other prominent Poles when it crashed in thick fog while coming in to land in western Russia. There were no survivors. Adding a cruel twist of irony to the tragedy, the plane was en route to an event commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Katyn Forest massacre, in which Soviet police killed more than 20,000 Polish prisoners of war. The crash occurred just a short distance from the site of the massacre, which the Associated Press called "one of Poland's greatest national traumas."

One of my roommates, Agnieszka, is from Poland. She's in Ames now doing graduate work as a visiting scientist for the university. "It's hard to be here right now," she told me. "It's horrible [what happened]."

She directed me to a couple of Poland's news websites, which were changed to black and white in memory of the flight's victims. I've been using Google Translate on the sites to gather more details, but the translations are imprecise. I gathered from her that air traffic controllers repeatedly advised the plane's crew to land elsewhere but the crew decided against it. Apparently, there is some speculation that Kaczynski didn't want to arrive late for an event and might have instructed the pilots to go ahead with the landing. No doubt, conspiracy theories have begun to float around thanks to Kaczynski's icy relationship with the Kremlin. Rescuers recovered the plane's black box, so the truth is likely to emerge.

The New York Times did a good job of describing the situation:
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.
I studied in Poland for a month two summers ago with Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Dennis Chamberlin. He spent about two decades of his life living there after winning the prize and now teaches at Iowa State. I don't think that I ever met any of the victims of today's tragedy, but I did follow around the mayor of Gdynia, Wojciech Szczurek, for a short photo essay. Szczurek, pictured below on the left standing next to Kaczynski, served as his advisor to the president for self-government (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons):


Rest in peace.

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