LI's Poles express sorrow at plane crash

Mourners wait to lay candles and flowers outside

Mourners wait to lay candles and flowers outside the Presidential Palace in memory of late Polish President Lech Kaczynski. (April 10, 2010) (Credit: Getty Images)

Members of Long Island's Polish community expressed shock and sadness Saturday at the crash that killed Poland's president and other national leaders.

"It's very sad," said Stanislaw Cieslak, who owns the Wisla Deli in Riverhead, home to several thousand people of Polish descent. "The guys who died, they were very experienced guys."

The airliner carrying Polish president Lech Kaczynski and members of the country's military, political and church elites crashed in fog Saturday as it took them to a ceremony in Russia marking the 70th anniversary of the slaughter of thousands of Polish military officers by Soviet secret police.

Some on board were relatives of the officers slain in the Katyn massacre. Officials said 96 people died in the crash.

About 160,000 Long Islanders have Polish ancestry, according to the 2000 census.

Cieslak said he and his son, Marcin, got a call at about 5 a.m. from Cieslak's daughter, who lives on the West Coast and saw the news as she was going to bed. Throughout Saturday, they said, customers talked about what had happened.

Ziggy Wilinski, president of the Riverhead Polish Hall who immigrated to America in 1952, said he heard the news on the radio Saturday morning.

"That it happened in my maternal land is kind of shocking, to say the least," said Wilinski, 63.

The Rev. Ryszard Ficek of St. Isidore Roman Catholic Church in Riverhead spoke of the tragedy during evening Mass.

"Katyn has a very, very important meaning for anybody who knows a little bit of history of Poland," he said, referring to the crash site. "For Polish, this place, especially today . . . seems to be really damned."

Ficek, the church's assistant pastor, told attendees of the importance of prayer and confession, given "the particular judgment that awaits each of us when we die."

The congregation later said a prayer for the victims of the crash and their families.

Afterward, the Rev. Robert Kuznik, the church's pastor, said he hopes news of the accident will unite the community. "Tragedies bring people together."

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