MOSCOW — The plane crash that killed Polish President Lech Kaczynski on Saturday gutted a nation's leadership and silenced some of the most potent human symbols of its tragic and tumultuous history.
It was, literally, a nation colliding with its past: The plane ran aground on a patch of earth that has symbolized the Soviet-era repressions that shaped much of the 20th century, near the remote Russian forest glade called Katyn where thousands of Polish prisoners of war were killed and dumped in unmarked graves by Soviet secret police in 1940.
The toll cut a swath through Poland's elite. Along with the president, the 97 dead included the army chief of staff, the head of the National Security Office, the national bank president, the deputy foreign minister, the deputy parliament speaker, the civil rights commissioner and members of parliament.
But also aboard the plane were war veterans and surviving family members of Poles killed by the Soviets. There was 90-year-old Ryszard Kaczorowski, Poland's last "president-in-exile" during the Soviet years. And Anna Walentynowicz, the shipyard worker whose dismissal sparked the Solidarity union protests that eventually led to the collapse of Polish communism.
And, of course, Kaczynski himself — a former Warsaw mayor imprisoned in the 1980s for his opposition to communism.
"The contemporary world has not seen such a tragedy," said Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, who called for two minutes of silence at noon today. In Warsaw, people placed flowers and lit candles outside the presidential palace.
Flying on a 26-year-old, Soviet-designed plane, these iconic Polish figures were headed to a Catholic Mass to honor the 70th anniversary of the deaths at Katyn. It was to be a tribute to long-smothered truth.
The massacre was denied for decades by the Soviet Union, and even today, Russian reluctance to open the investigation files on the Polish prisoners remains a deeply sensitive topic between the two countries. To many Poles, the very name Katyn is shorthand for decades of secret grief and impotence in the face of Soviet power.
"I just have this feeling that Katyn is a sort of diabolical place in Polish history," said Tomasz Lis, a prominent Polish journalist and author. "It's just unimaginable; it's horrible."
As the news spread, a shiver of repulsion ran through a shocked Poland.
"This is unbelievable — this tragic, cursed Katyn," Kaczynski's predecessor, Aleksander Kwasniewski, said on Polish television. "It's hard to believe. You get chills down your spine."
The tragic irony of the crash was so complete that it seemed destined for conspiracy theory. Russian officials were careful to vow in the earliest hours to closely involve Poland in the investigation. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, rushing to the scene of the crash, announced that he would personally head the probe.
Poland was invaded by the Soviet Union during World War II, and lived for decades under Moscow's domination. Long after the fall of the Berlin Wall, ties with Russia remain strained by old anxieties over independence.
As the presidential plane winged toward the western Russian city of Smolensk on Saturday morning, thick fog wrapped the city. On the ground, air traffic controllers urged the crew to land either in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, or in Moscow rather than risk navigating the fog, Russian officials said.
But time was pressing. The crew decided to risk the landing, and ignored instructions from the air traffic controllers, the Russian air force said.
"The Polish presidential plane did not make it to the runway while landing," Smolensk region Gov. Sergei Anufriyev told reporters. "Tentative findings indicate that it hit the treetops and fell apart. Nobody has survived the disaster."
On the ground, about 1,000 people, many of them Poles, were milling around the memorial site. A Polish priest was to say Mass once the presidential delegation arrived.
"We were getting ready for the Mass and everybody was expecting the president to arrive any minute," said Yan Rachinsky of Russia's Memorial human rights group. "Suddenly people started talking quietly about something. There were many concerned faces. ... Soon people started running around and talking to each other. Everybody was wondering what was going on. It was an atmosphere of tension."
The priest led a prayer. Then the Polish ambassador stepped up to break the news. The presidential plane had crashed, he told the crowd. There were no survivors.
"It was a moment of complete shock," Rachinsky said. "We were standing there speechless. We couldn't believe it."
Tears wetting nearly every face, Rachinsky said, the group went ahead with the Mass.
By late afternoon, 97 bodies were being packed into coffins and flown to Moscow for identification. The flight recorders had been found, and investigators were studying them for clues.