Poland Holds Public Memorial for Crash Victims

By: Associated Press Email
By: Associated Press Email
Some 100,000 Poles filled Warsaw

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WARSAW, Poland – Some 100,000 Poles filled Warsaw's biggest public square Saturday, joining together for a memorial and funeral mass for the 96 people killed in a plane crash a week earlier. They stood silent for two minutes before emergency sirens screamed and church bells pealed.

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 center, 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.

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

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 at 6 p.m. (1600 GMT; noon EDT) in Warsaw.

Among the mourners was Teresa Winkler, 76, who came to honor a president "who took care of the people forgotten by society," such as aging World War II soldiers and forgotten Solidarity activists.

"He was a real patriot and a real Pole," 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 honor 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 labor union, waved their banners.

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

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

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

President Barack Obama was still expected to arrive Sunday as was Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. French President Nicolas Sarkozy's office said that despite airports being closed through Monday, he intends to fly to Krakow Sunday.

Czech President Vaclav Klaus said he would travel to Krakow by train and car while Slovak President Ivan Gasparovic and Slovenian President Danilo Turk said they would go by car.

Last Saturday's crash plunged Poland into a deep grief not seen since the death of Pope John Paul II five years ago.

The city operated buses, subways and trams for free and the government banned the sale of alcohol until Saturday night.

"What happened was a great shock for us; we are here today though we didn't like many of the things that those who died represented," said Maciej Gajewski, a 40-year-old engineer who was there with his wife and three children.

"But we are sorry for them. I feel like a Pole here, I feel united with my compatriots in this difficult situation," he said.

On Sunday, numerous world leaders are expected for a tradition-laden funeral for Kaczynski and his wife, whose plane went down in heavy fog after clipping a birch tree on approach to Smolensk, Russia. They had planned to attend a memorial for thousands of Polish army officers executed in 1940 by the forerunner of the Soviet secret police.

All airports in Poland remained closed Saturday to flights above the cloud level of 6,000 meters (20,000 feet) because of the ash cloud, including Balice in Krakow where most of the dignitaries are expected to arrive on Sunday morning, said Grzegorz Hlebowicz, spokesman for Poland's aviation authorities.

South Korean Prime Minister Chung Un-chan canceled his trip and Cardinal Angelo Sodano, dean of the College of Cardinals, could not fly from Rome to deliver a memorial Mass Saturday.

Sunday's state funeral in mostly Roman Catholic Poland will begin at 2 p.m. (1200 GMT; 8 a.m. EDT) with a Mass at the 13th-century St. Mary's Basilica. The bodies of the first couple will then be carried in a funeral procession across the Old Town to the historic Wawel Cathedral, where they will be interred.


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