Hundreds of thousands in Warsaw for President Lech Kaczynski's memorial service
Hundreds of thousands of Poles have crowded into a square in central Warsaw for a memorial service honouring the victims of the Smolensk plane crash that claimed the lives of the Polish president, his wife and dozens of the nation's elite.
A sombre procession of thousands upon thousands of mourners from all over Poland made their way to Pilsudski Square, a place of deep symbolic significance for Poles as it was there that Pope John Paul II delivered a sermon in 1979 that inspired them to rise up against communism.
“Things like this never happen, they are impossible. It is the greatest tragedy in the history of Poland since World War II,” Donald Tusk, the Polish prime minister, told the assembled mourners.
“None of us can remember an incident when so many great and important people died in one tragic moment. The list of those who died comes from the whole of Poland, and that list is Polish history.”
Mr Tusk promised that those who died will always be remembered.
As the service progressed many of the relatives of the deceased sitting near a specially built stage and alter wiped tears from their eyes.
In the front row a harrowed-looking Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the president’s twin brother, sat ashen faced, while beside him Marta Kaczynska, Mr and Mrs Kaczynski’s only child, struggled to contain her emotions.
Bronislaw Komorowski, who became Poland’s acting head of state after the president’s death, praised Poland’s historical foe Russia for the response of its people to the disaster.
“In these difficult times for our country we have not been alone. We are therefore grateful to the citizens of Russia who have spontaneously conveyed their compassion to Poland and the Polish people,” he said.
Polish people had travelled from all over the country to attend the service.
"We took a train this morning to say a special farewell to our president and all those who died with him. We are sad because we lost our head of state," said Zenon Kosciuk, who had travelled from the western city of Szczecin.
Another mourner, Jan Dow, standing with his daughter on his shoulders amid a sea of Polish flags at the service said he had to be there. "I am a patriot and it was my duty to be here," he explained. "What happened was a national tragedy."
A large part of the city's centre has been closed to traffic, and extra trains, trams and buses have been laid on to take hundreds of thousands of people to the service.
Along with the president, the crash killed the heads of the Polish armed services, the governor of the national bank, two ministers and a litany of household names in Poland.
The tragedy, the worst to strike the country since the end of the Second World War, triggered an outpouring of emotion that erased all political differences and united Poland in grief.
Sunday morning will see the burial of President Kaczynski and his wife in Wawel Castle, in Krakow, the resting place of Poland's royalty and national heroes.
Authorities have stressed that they expect the funeral to go ahead even though all Poland's airports have been closed by the cloud of volcanic ash. Dozens of world leaders and dignitaries, including President Obama, President Medvedev and Prince Charles, have said they will attend, and there have been fears that they may have to cancel.
The Polish government said the bodies of the president and his wife will be flown to Krakow by a turbo-prop aircraft, which is immune to the effects of the ash cloud.