On 31 August 1997, Princess Diana died in a tragic car crash. As the nation and two young princes grieved, blame was sought: was it the overzealous paparazzi? a drunk driver? or was the monarchy at fault?

What happened that night

Diana and Dodi Fayed

It was just after midnight on August 31, 1997, when Diana Princess of Wales and her companion Dodi Fayed left the Ritz Hotel in Paris, en route to Fayed's house in the city's 16th district.

At about 12.15 am, the couple left the hotel in their black Mercedes limousine. At roughly the same time, a Range Rover departed from the front entrance in an attempt to decoy the waiting pack of nearly 40 paparazzi.

According to one observer, the Range Rover was trailed by the photographers, but the paparazzi were soon tipped off that the couple was not inside.

Half of the group, some on motorcycle, split off to follow the Mercedes.

Diana's limousine was driven by Henri Paul, assistant security chief at the Ritz, which was owned by Fayed's father.

Trying to evade the paparazzi, the limousine reached speeds of 90mph as it came down the Place de la Concorde, police later estimated.

Paul had left most of the photographers in the dust, but a few cars and motorcycles kept up as he entered a bend at the entrance to an underpass under the Alma bridge—a spot that had already seen two fatal car accidents in recent years.

At this point Paul lost control of the Mercedes, police later concluded, possibly just seconds after striking a white Fiat Uno thought to have been carrying several paparazzi.

 

 

A deadly convergence

Paper headlines
The headlines (via nydailynews)

The limousine smashed head-on into a concrete post in the centre divider, and then slammed into the right wall of the underpass. 

It took 90 minutes to cut through the roof of the limousine and free the occupants. Fayed and the car's driver Henri Paul, had been killed instantly. Diana had suffered head injuries and was bleeding from the chest, but the ambulance workers were able to revive her at the scene.

The Princess was rushed to the intensive care unit at a nearby hospital. By the time Diana arrived, her heart had stopped beating. 

French surgeons quickly opened her chest and closed a wound in the left ventricle of her heart, then massaged her heart for two hours, But Diana had suffered massive internal bleeding and at 4 am the Princess was pronounced dead.

 

"My husband is planning 'an accident'
in my car, brake failure, and serious
head injury in order to make the
path clear for Charles to marry"

 

 

Was the paparazzi to blame?

Prince William and Harry with Prince Charles at Diana's funeral
The two young princes with their dad at Diana's funeral (via Telegraph)

Blame for the crash immediately focussed on the paparazzi, with seven photographers detained by police at the site of the incident.

One photographer was attacked by onlookers at the crash site as he tried to take pictures of the wrecked vehicle, and a public outcry rose up against the paparazzi. 

Witnesses told investigators that they had seen two cars pass the limousine just before the crash. Brian Anderson, a Californian businessman who was riding in a taxi just in front of Diana's car, told CBS News that the Mercedes was being closely followed by two motorcycles, one of which "was driving aggressively and dangerously."

But when tests revealed that Paul, the limousine driver, had had a blood alcohol level three times the legal limit at the time of the crash, the investigation shifted away from the paparazzi.

Read more: Intriguing mysteries: The death of Marilyn Monroe

 

Was the driver to blame?

Tests also showed that Paul had Prozac, the antidepressant, and tiapride, a prescription drug used to treat alcoholics and prevent aggression, in his blood. Both medications can cause drowsiness, impaired judgement and loss of concentration when used with alcohol.

 

"You had to know [the limousine]
 well to drive it safely"

 

Paul was seen by witnesses drinking a couple of glasses of French liqueur at the Ritz Hotel and then consuming whiskey at a nearby bar.

Others defended the driver.

The bodyguard who survived the crash with a smashed jaw, Trevor Rees-Jones, told investigators that he did not remember the crash itself, but that when he got in the Mercedes, driver Paul "seemed fine". Several of Paul's friends and associates spoke out on his behalf, calling him "very serious" and "calm and very competent." 

 

 

The verdict

Flowers outside Buckingham Palace
Flowers outside Buckingham Palace (via Wiki)

During the course of a two-year probe into the cause of the accident, other possibilities arose. A chauffeur who regularly drove the limousine reported having had persistent problems with the brakes. "You had to know it well to drive it safely," the chauffeur said of the car; Paul had never driven it before.

Clouding matters further, a former French marine came forward and claimed he was speeding in a gray Ford just a few feet behind the limousine when the crash occurred, and that his own erratic driving may have contributed to the accident. 

But officials concluded one man was to blame: Henri Paul. Announcing his decision in 1999, a French judge dismissed the charges against the paparazzi and declared that "The driver of the car was inebriated...and not in a position to maintain control of the vehicle.

Read more: Princess Diana: A life in style

 

But it doesn't quite end there...

But not everyone was satisfied with the ruling, and it may never be possible to know what role, if any, overzealous photographers played in the crash that took the life of a princess.

At least one man publicly challenged the ruling. Mohamed Al Fayed, Dodi's father and owner of the upscale London department store Harrods, maintained through a spokesperson that Paul was not at fault. More than a year earlier, Al Fayed had told British media that he was "99.9 per cent certain" the fatal crash was not accidental but was part of a conspiracy to prevent his son from marrying Diana.

Al Fayed claimed that Diana and Dodi were engaged, and that while he didn't know who had engineered the crash, some people—including many in the "British establishment"—were happy the couple died. Buckingham Palace expressed dismay at Al Fayed's theory, saying it was "causing a lot of stress to the family." and rejecting the claim that the couple was engaged.

An inquest into the death of Diana and Fayed began in 2007, which asked whether there was any foul play. It found that although Fayed and Diana were in a relationship, she was neither pregnant (as had been claimed) nor were the pair engaged. 

During the inquest, a letter supposedly penned by the princess in October 1993 (uncovered by The Mirror in 2003) was put forward as evidence. Reports say that she had written the letter to her butler and self-proclaimed confidant, Paul Burrell. 

"This particular phase in my life is the most dangerous. My husband is planning an accident in my car, brake failure or some serious head injury in order to make the path clear for him to marry Tiggy. Camilla is nothing more than a decoy so we are being used by the man in every sense of the word."
 

However, the veracity of the letter was put under question when friend, and more likely confidant, Lucia Flecha da Lima said that the princess did not fear for her life "Paul Burrell was perfectly capable of imitating Princess Diana's handwriting. I don't believe she was fearing for her life, especially from Prince Charles, the future king of your country."

Although Diana did write letters to Burrell, too much doubt was placed on this letter, and in the end, the jury concluded that the princess was not afraid of Prince Charles.

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