Public memorial for Polish air crash victims

Some 100,000 Poles filled Warsaw’s biggest public square today, joining together for a memorial and funeral Mass for the 96 people killed in a plane crash a week ago.

Some 100,000 Poles filled Warsaw’s biggest public square today, joining together for a memorial and funeral Mass for the 96 people killed in a plane crash a week ago.

The thickening cloud of volcanic ash over Europe caused some world leaders to cancel plans to attend tomorrow’s state funeral, but the number of expected no-shows so far is less than 20.

The crowd in Pilsudski Square waved white-and-red Polish flags with black ribbons of mourning affixed to them. A massive white stage, a large cross in the centre, was flanked by oversized photos of the dead, including President Lech Kaczynski.

The names of the dead were read aloud, starting with the president and his wife, Maria, while Marta, their only child, and Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the president’s twin brother and former prime minister, looked on. Others at the service included former President Lech Walesa, Prime Minister Donald Tusk and acting president Bronislaw Komorowski.

“Our world went crashing down for the second time at the same place,” Komorowski said of the crash near Russia’s Katyn forest, site of a World War II massacre of Polish officers.

Mr Tusk called the crash a calamitous event that was “the greatest tragedy in Poland since the war”.

The crash claimed the lives of a swathe of Poland’s elite, including numerous politicians, the central bank governor, the commanders of the country’s armed forces and the head of its Olympic committee, among others.

The event was the first of two days of ceremonies and will be followed by a funeral Mass for the first couple at St John’s Cathedral in Warsaw.

The coffins of Mr Kaczynski and his wife were taken to the Gothic cathedral for the evening Mass, carried on artillery caissons pulled by Army Humvees escorted by Polish soldiers on foot and horse-riding cavalry behind them.

After the evening mass, their bodies will remain in the cathedral and then flown early tomorrow to Krakow aboard a military transport for the state funeral, said Presidential Palace spokesman Jacek Sasin.

The bodies of the first couple had lain in state in the Presidential Palace since Tuesday.

“During those few days when the palace was open, some 180,000 people came through the palace” to pay their respects, he said. Some people waited as long as 14 hours in line.

Among the mourners today was Teresa Winkler, 76, who came to honour a president “who took care of the people forgotten by society”, such as ageing Second World War soldiers and forgotten Solidarity activists.

“He was a real patriot and a real Pole,” Ms Winkler said. “I am afraid it will be hard to find another president like Kaczynski.”

Nearby was a group of Chechen refugees who said they were there to honour the first lady for her charity work and efforts to help them.

Members of Solidarity, the freedom movement that Kaczynski supported and that still exists as a labour union, waved their banners.

A state funeral for the president and his wife is set for tomorrow, but some world leaders cancelled their plans to go, citing the volcanic ash cloud hanging over Europe, leaving many airports closed.

Swedish King Carl Gustaf and Foreign Minister Carl Bildt cancelled their trip to Krakow, as did Finnish President Tarja Halonen. They cited ongoing flight restrictions.

Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero along with King Juan Carlos and Queen Sophia also cancelled their trip.

Other delegations from Egypt, Macedonia, India, Japan, South Korea, Mexico, New Zealand and Pakistan also cancelled plans to attend the state funeral.

President Barack Obama was still expected to arrive tomorrow and Andrei Tsibulin, a Kremlin spokesman, said that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev planned to attend.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s office said that despite airports being closed until Monday, he intends to fly to Krakow tomorrow.

Czech President Vaclav Klaus, Slovak President Ivan Gasparovic, Slovenian President Danilo Turk, Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych, Latvian President Valdis Zatlers and Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves planned to travel by car.

Last Saturday’s crash of the Tupolev 154 – which investigators have said was likely to have been because of human error – plunged Poland into a deep grief not seen since the death of Pope John Paul five years ago.

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