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Robertson: Scene of Polish plane crash stuns onlookers

By Nic Robertson, CNN Senior International Correspondent
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Debris litters crash site
  • CNN's Nic Robertson writes from scene of air crash in Russia
  • Difficult to think of the horror of passengers' last moments
  • Broken trees suggest airplane hit them and disintegrated
  • Russia's Vladimir Putin is solemn at fallen leader's casket

Smolensk, Russia (CNN) -- When I found the first piece of fuselage, I was shocked. It was flimsy, the thin metal easily twisted back on itself.

Gray on one side, some yellow on the other, it sat in a small puddle of mud a few feet from the road. I was half a mile from the runway, the tall silver birch trees nearby broken like so many matchsticks.

Somehow I thought planes were supposed to be stronger than this, but what I was confronted with was an object lesson on the precarious nature of flying. The evidence of what had happened was clear. The plane struck the trees, at first just grazing their uppermost branches and then their slender boughs and trunks. It was enough to rip the plane apart.

What feels almost invincible as it powers through takeoff and thrusts upward through the skies at hundreds of miles an hour had been reduced to shreds of metal, little more than a discarded tin can.

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These are the thoughts that flashed through my mind in those first moments of discovery.

And that's when the horror of it sinks in. The last tragic moments for all aboard; it's impossible to imagine the awfulness of those final seconds. I am swept by another emotion, sadness for the families, and I feel captured by an undefined grief. I knew no one aboard, but to see how their lives ended is to know a tiny fraction of the pain their loved ones must bear.

But I have come to work, to tell the story of what happened, to piece together the small bits of information we'll get, to make some sense of our corner of this huge tragedy. So that is what my team and I do.

Tommy Evans, my producer, and Luis Grahame-Yool, our cameraman, get to work and set up the first live shot. It's cold in Smolensk -- there are still piles of snow here and there. None of us have had much sleep. Luis arrived 12 hours ahead of us, Tommy and I flew in from Macedonia. All of us took the 400-kilometer drive from Moscow to get here. Each of us intent on our job, each of us grappling with the enormity of the day.

No day is ever normal at CNN, but this defies even that logic. A president, his wife, many of the country's top military, political and religious leaders killed in a country that's not their own. The implications could be huge.

As the day wore on and more details emerged, it seemed clear Russia wanted to make it known it was not at fault. Evidence pointed toward the pilots rather than a mechanical error.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who is leading Russia's investigation, was on course to lay blame at Poland's door. He has a reputation as a tough autocrat, and it seemed to me that's what we are seeing here.

But we got to see another face of Putin, too: The stony-faced solemn friend of Poland. There seemed little doubting his grief and seriousness as he stood at the foot of the Polish president's casket during the long sombre repatriation ceremony we witnessed that afternoon.

Having stood among the wreckage and broken trees as he has, it is not hard to imagine that this iron man of Russian politics was moved by what he saw. For who among us, however familiar with tragedy, could fail to be touched by the scale and nature of Poland's loss.