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Death of Diana, Princess of Wales

31/08/1997

In the early hours of 31 August 1997, Diana, Princess of Wales died in hospital after being injured in a motor vehicle accident in a road tunnel in Paris. Her partner, Dodi Fayed, and the driver of the Mercedes-Benz W140, Henri Paul, were pronounced dead at the scene. Their bodyguard, Trevor Rees-Jones, survived with serious injuries.

Some media claimed the erratic behaviour of paparazzi following the car, as reported by the BBC, had contributed to the crash. In 1999, a French investigation found that Paul, who lost control of the vehicle at high speed while intoxicated by alcohol and under the effects of prescription drugs, was solely responsible for the crash. He was the deputy head of security at the Hôtel Ritz and had earlier goaded paparazzi waiting for Diana and Fayed outside the hotel. Anti-depressants and traces of an anti-psychotic in his blood may have worsened Paul's inebriation. No evidence was found that paparazzi were near the car when it crashed. In 2008, the jury at a British inquest returned a verdict of unlawful killing through grossly negligent driving by Paul and following vehicles. It was also found that none of the occupants of the car were wearing a seat belt.

Diana was 36 years old when she died. Her death caused an unprecedented outpouring of public grief in the United Kingdom and worldwide, and her funeral was watched by an estimated 2.5 billion people. The Royal Family were criticised in the press for their reaction to Diana's death. Public interest in Diana has remained high and she has retained regular press coverage in the years after her death.


Flowers left outside Kensington Palace in tribute to Diana, Princess of Wales
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Circumstances

Events preceding the crash

On Saturday, 30 August 1997, Diana left Sardinia on a private jet and arrived in Paris with Dodi Fayed, the son of Mohamed Al-Fayed. They had stopped there en route to London, having spent the preceding nine days together on board Mohamed Al-Fayed's yacht Jonikal on the French and Italian Riviera. They had intended to stay there for the night. Mohamed Al-Fayed was and is the owner of the Hôtel Ritz Paris. He also owned an apartment on Rue Arsène Houssaye, a short distance from the hotel, just off the Avenue des Champs Elysées.

Henri Paul, the deputy head of security at the Ritz, had been instructed to drive the hired black 1994 Mercedes-Benz W140 in order to elude the paparazzi; a decoy vehicle left the Ritz first from the main entrance on Place Vendôme, attracting a throng of photographers. Diana and Fayed then departed from the hotel's rear entrance, Rue Cambon at around 00:20 on 31 August CEST (22:20 on 30 August UTC), heading for the apartment in Rue Arsène Houssaye. They did this to avoid the nearly 30 photographers waiting in front of the hotel. They were the rear passengers; Trevor Rees-Jones, a member of the Fayed family's personal protection team, was in the (right) front passenger seat. The occupants were not wearing seat belts. After leaving the Rue Cambon and crossing the Place de la Concorde, they drove along Cours la Reine and Cours Albert 1er – the embankment road along the right bank of the River Seine – into the Place de l'Alma underpass.


A Mercedes-Benz W140, similar to the one involved in the accident.

The crash

At 00:23, Paul lost control of the vehicle at the entrance to the Pont de l'Alma tunnel. The car struck the right-hand wall and then swerved to the left of the two-lane carriageway before it collided head-on with the 13th pillar that supported the roof. The car was travelling at an estimated speed of 105 km/h (65 mph) – over twice the tunnel's 50 km/h (31 mph) speed limit. It then spun and hit the stone wall of the tunnel backwards, finally coming to a stop. The impact caused substantial damage, particularly to the front half of the vehicle, as there was no guard rail between the pillars to prevent this. Witnesses arriving shortly after the accident reported smoke. Witnesses also reported that photographers on motorcycles "swarmed the Mercedes sedan before it entered the tunnel".

The aftermath

With the four occupants still in the now wrecked car, the photographers, who had been driving slower and were some distance behind the Mercedes, reached the scene. The photographers were on motorcycles. Some rushed to help, tried to open the doors and help the victims, while some of them took pictures. Airbags were deployed. Police arrived on scene around ten minutes after the crash at 00:30 and an ambulance was on site five minutes after the police, according to witnesses. France Info radio reported that one photographer was beaten by witnesses who were horrified by the scene. Five of the photographers were taken into custody. Later, two others were detained and around twenty rolls of film were taken from the photographers. Police also impounded their vehicles. Firemen also arrived to help remove the victims.

Still conscious, Rees-Jones had suffered multiple serious facial injuries and a head contusion. The front occupants' airbags had functioned normally. Diana, who had been sitting in the right rear passenger seat, was still conscious. Critically injured, Diana was reported to murmur repeatedly, "Oh my God," and after the photographers and other helpers were pushed away by police, "Leave me alone". In June 2007, the Channel 4 documentary Diana: The Witnesses in the Tunnel claimed that the first person to touch Diana was Dr. Maillez, who chanced upon the scene. He reported that Diana had no visible injuries but was in shock. Diana was removed from the car at 01:00. She then went into cardiac arrest and following external cardiopulmonary resuscitation, her heart started beating again. Diana was moved to the SAMU ambulance at 01:18, left the scene at 01:41 and arrived at the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital at 02:06.

Fayed had been sitting in the left rear passenger seat and was shortly afterwards pronounced dead. Paul was declared dead on removal from the wreckage. Both were taken to the Institut Médico-Légal (IML), the Paris mortuary, not to a hospital. Paul was later found to have a blood alcohol level of 1.75 grams per litre of blood, which is about 3.5 times the legal limit in France (equivalent to about 2.2 times the legal limit in Canada, the UK, and the US).


The entrance to the Pont de l'Alma Tunnel (as seen in 1998), the site where Diana was fatally injured

Despite rigorous attempts to save her, Diana's injuries were too extensive and resuscitation attempts, including internal cardiac massage, were unsuccessful: her heart had been displaced to the right side of the chest, which tore the pulmonary vein and the pericardium. Diana later died at the hospital at approximately 04:00. Anesthesiologist Bruno Riou announced her death at 06:00 at a news conference held at the hospital.

Later that morning, French Interior Minister Jean-Pierre Chevènement visited the hospital with French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin. At around 17:00, Diana's former husband, Charles, Prince of Wales, and her two older sisters, Lady Sarah McCorquodale and Lady Jane Fellowes, arrived in Paris. The group visited the hospital along with French President Jacques Chirac and thanked the doctors for trying to save her life. Prince Charles accompanied Diana's body home on Sunday. Her body was taken to the Hammersmith and Fulham mortuary in London for a post-mortem examination later that day.

Initial media reports stated Diana's car had collided with the pillar at 190 km/h (120 mph), and that the speedometer's needle had jammed at that position; it was later announced that the car's speed upon collision was 95–110 km/h (59–68 mph). In either case, the car was certainly travelling much faster than the speed limit of 50 km/h (31 mph). In 1999, a French investigation concluded the Mercedes had come into contact with another vehicle (a white Fiat Uno) in the tunnel. The driver of that vehicle has never been conclusively traced, although many believe the driver of the Fiat was Le Van Thanh. The specific vehicle has not been identified.

It was remarked by Robin Cook, the British Foreign Secretary, that if the accident had been caused in part by being hounded by paparazzi, it would be "doubly tragic". Diana's brother also blamed tabloid media for her death. An eighteen-month French judicial investigation concluded in 1999 that the crash was caused by Paul, who lost control at high speed while intoxicated.

In the years after her death, interest in the life of Diana has remained high. As a temporary memorial, the public co-opted the Flamme de la Liberté (Flame of Liberty), a monument near the Alma Tunnel related to the French donation of the Statue of Liberty to the United States. The messages of condolence have since been removed and its use as a Diana memorial has discontinued, though visitors still leave messages in her memory. A permanent memorial, the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fountain, was opened by the Queen in Hyde Park in London on 6 July 2004.


The Flame of Liberty, the unofficial Diana memorial in Paris, France, the day after the 20th anniversary of her death. The ground is covered with flowers and other tributes, and the chain fence covered with love locks.

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Published in 17/09/2020

Updated in 19/02/2021

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