An ageing jet carrying Polandâ€™s President Lech Kaczynski, his wifeÂ and much of the state elite crashed in thick fog in Russia on Saturday killing all 97 people on board and plunging a nation into grief.
The Soviet-era Tupolev Tu-154 hit tree tops in fog as it approached the runway at Smolensk airport in western Russia and broke up in flames, regional governor Sergei Antufiev said.
The plane was taking Kaczynski, wife, the military chief of staff and other top officers, central bank governor, deputy foreign minister, members of parliament and other senior officials to a memorial ceremony for thousands of Polish troops massacred by Russian forces in World War II.
â€œIt clipped the tops of the trees, crashed down and broke into pieces,â€ Antufiev told Russia-24 television news network.
Lieutenant General Alexander Alyoshin, deputy head of Russiaâ€™s air force, said the pilots repeatedly ignored instructions from air traffic controllers.
Wreckage, including the engines and a large chunk of mud-caked tailfin, was scattered across a forest and parts of it burned for more than an hour. The two black box flight recorders were quickly found, news agencies reported.
As well as killing the 60-year-old head of state, the crash devastated Polandâ€™s military leadership.
The 88 passengers included General Franciszek Gagor, chief of Polandâ€™s armed forces and the heads of all the main armed forces, central bank governor Slawomir Skrzypek, deputy foreign minister Andrzej Kremer, deputy defence minister Stanislaw Jerzy Komorowski, Kaczynskiâ€™s wife Maria, and scores of MPs, historians and other officials.
â€œThis kind of dramatic tragedy is unheard of in the modern world,â€ Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk said after an emergency cabinet meeting. He later headed to the crash site.
Former Polish president Lech Walesa, who headed the Solidarity movement, called the disaster â€œinconceivableâ€.
â€œThe Soviets killed Polish elites in Katyn 70 years ago. Today, the Polish elite died there while getting ready to pay homage to the Poles killed there,â€ a shaken Walesa told AFP.
Bronislaw Komorowski, head of Polandâ€™s lower house, took over as interim head-of-state. He ordered a week of official mourning, declaring: â€œWe are united â€” there is no left or right â€” we are united in national mourning,â€
There was no immediate word from the presidentâ€™s identical twin brother, Jaroslaw, who previously served as prime minister. But thousands descended on the presidential palace in Warsaw to lay a sea of red and white flowers. Many people hung national flags from their windows.
The Polish delegation was to attend a memorial service in the Katyn Forest, near the crash scene, for the 22,000 top Polish officers and troops killed by Soviet troops 70 years ago. The event had been intended to help reconciliation between Poland and Russia.
The jet was repaired and refurbished in December, Alexei Gusev, director of the Aviakor maker said.
Russian officials pointed at pilot error. Some 1.5 kilometres (0.9 miles) from the airport, air traffic controllers noticed the jet was below the scheduled gliding path, the air force deputy chief said.
â€œThe head of the group ordered the crew to return to horizontal flight, and when the crew did not fulfil the instruction, ordered them several times to land at another airport,â€ Alyoshin said.
â€œNonetheless the crew continued to descend. Unfortunately this ended tragically,â€ he added.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev appointed Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to head an inquiry commission and sent Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu to the site. Putin later arrived to inspect the crash site as well.
Kaczynski and his twin brother formed a formidable dual leadership of Polandâ€™s nationalist right wing, stubbornly taking on other European leaders at EU summits to defend his countryâ€™s cause. He faced an election later this year but was to fight for a new term.
The crash occurred three days after Putin and Tusk attended a joint memorial for the Katyn victims. The event was seen as a huge symbolic advance in Russiaâ€™s often thorny relations with Poland.
Putin called Tusk to express condolences over the â€œtragicâ€ crash, the Russian leaderâ€™s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.
A glance at some of the Glance at some of those who died in plane crash
most prominent Â Â Â victims of the crash of Polandâ€™s presidential plane, according to the official passenger list, released by the presidentâ€™s office.
â€¢ Lech Kaczynski, 60. Polandâ€™s president, a nationalist conservative who had been in office since 2005. A founder of the Law and Justice party, now in opposition, and the twin brother of its leader, former Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski.
â€¢ Maria Kaczynska, 66, Polandâ€™s first lady; an economist and translator of English and French, had carried out charity work in her role as first lady. Her uncle was killed at Katyn.
â€¢ Gen. Franciszek Gagor, 58. Army chief of staff since Feb. 2006. From 2004 to 2006, was Polandâ€™s representative at NATO in Brussels.
â€¢ Gen. Andrzej Blasik, 47, head of the Air Force since 2007. Received professional military education in Montgomery, Alabama, in 2005.
â€¢ Vice Admiral Andrzej Karweta, 51, Navy chief commander since November 2009. From 2002-2005 served at the Supreme Allied Command Atlantic, SACLANT in Norfolk, Virginia.
â€¢ Gen. Tadeusz Buk, 49, land forces commander since Sept. 2009. Served in 2007 as commander of Polish troops in Iraq.
â€¢ Slawomir Skrzypek, 46, president of the National Bank of Poland since 2007. A longtime colleague of Lech Kaczynski, served under him at Warsaw City Hall from 2002-5.
â€¢ Aleksander Szczyglo, 46, head of the National Security Office, a former defense minister under Kaczynskiâ€™s brother.
â€¢ Jerzy Szmajdzinski, 58, a deputy parliament speaker, left-wing lawmaker and the opposition Democratic Left Allianceâ€™s candidate for presidential elections this year. Served as defense minister at the time of the Iraq war.
â€¢ Ryszard Kaczorowski, 90, from 1989-90 Polandâ€™s last president-in-exile in London. In December 1990, passed on the insignia of the presidency to the first democratically elected president, Lech Walesa, in a high-profile ceremony.
â€¢ Janusz Kurtyka, 49. A historian; since 2005 head of state-run National Remembrance Institute, which investigates communist-era crimes.
â€¢ Anna Walentynowicz, 80, Solidarity activist. Her firing in August 1980 from the Lenin Shipyards in Gdansk sparked a workersâ€™ strike that spurred the eventual creation of the freedom movement, of which she became a prominent member.
â€¢ Piotr Nurowski, 64, head of Polandâ€™s Olympic Committee.
â€¢ Krystyna Bochenek, 56, deputy parliament speaker, member of the prime ministerâ€™s Civic Platform party.