August 31st Paris Ephemeris: Lady Diana's fatal accident in the Pont de l'Alma tunnel

Published by Manon de Sortiraparis · Published on September 1st, 2021 at 04:48 p.m.
On August 31, 1997, after a frantic chase through the streets of Paris with paparazzi, Princess Lady Diana died in a tragic car accident in the Pont de l'Alma tunnel.

On Sunday August 31, 1997, after a chase with paparazzi, Lady Diana, Princess of Wales, lost her life in a terrible car accident in the Pont de l'Alma tunnel in the heart of Paris. A tragedy for the British monarchy and a shock for the whole world.

Separated from her husband, Prince Charles, for a year, Lady Di spent the summer of 1997 vacationing around the Mediterranean with her new partner, Egyptian film producer Hemad Fayed, known as Dodi Al-Fayed, under the glare of paparazzi flashbulbs.

On August 30, the young couple landed in Paris by private jet from Olbia, Sardinia, where they had spent the end of their vacation, and headed to the Ritz to relax and dine at the L'Espadon restaurant; the owner of the Parisian palace was none other than Egyptian billionaire Mohamed Al-Fayed, father of Dodi Al-Fayed. But the paparazzi were already watching for their every move outside the hotel.

At 00.10 on the night of August 31, 1997, the"Princess of Hearts" and her lover decided to leave the Ritz discreetly by a back door. As a diversion, the couple left their own car parked in front of the palace and boarded a Mercedes-Benz W140, owned by Étoile Limousines and hired by the hotel. The bodyguard, Trevor Rees-Jones, sat in the front passenger seat, while Princess Diana and Dodi Al-Fayed sat in the back.

To exfiltrate them, Henri Paul, the Ritz's head of security, who had left his post a few hours earlier, was called back to the scene and settled behind the wheel of this Mercedes, which, as we would later learn, was a wreck that had previously been involved in an accident, condemned to scrap, and should never have returned to the road. The journey to Dodi Al-Fayed'sParis apartment, at 1 rue Arsène-Houssaye in the 8th arrondissement, took just five minutes. But the horde of paparazzi lurked nearby and soon realized the subterfuge.

To get the better of the photographers on motorcycles and in cars, who were already following or even preceding them, Dodi Al-Fayed asked Henri Paul to change the planned itinerary, taking smaller junctions and less well-lit streets to make it more difficult for the paparazzi to get a shot. The car drove along rue de Rivoli, crossed place de la Concorde and then, instead of taking the Champs-Elysées, forked off and sped along voie Georges-Pompidou, cours-la-Reine and cours Albert-Ier.

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But just as the quartet thought they'd lost their pursuers, the latter resurfaced. The Mercedes entered the tunnel under the Pont de l'Alma at an estimated speed of between 118 and 155 km/h, and nearly crashed into a Fiat Uno travelling at 50 km/h in the right-hand lane, catching its rear bumper.

Destabilized, Lady Di's car grazed the third pillar separating the two lanes of the tunnel, before colliding head-on with the thirteenth reinforced concrete pillar, at 00:26. Henri Paul, who was later found to have been driving with 1.82 g/l of alcohol in his blood and under the influence of drugs, was killed instantly as the horn, pressed down by the inert body of the driver, sounded without interruption.

The paramedics arrived six minutes after the accident to find Lady Diana still alive, curled up between the two seats in a coma. The bodyguard, Trevor Rees-Jones, was seriously injured. The only survivor of the accident, he has no memory of it. While the police try to keep the paparazzi at bay, photographing the scene of the accident, the paramedics try to resuscitate the princess on the spot. It took almost an hour to extricate her, as her right foot was trapped under a seat. Her companion was pronounced dead at the scene of the tragedy at 1:30 a.m., after cardiac massage failed to revive him.

Transported in a very serious condition to theSalpêtrière hospital, with injuries to her head, chest, right buttock and right arm, Lady Diana suffered hemorrhagic shock, followed by cardiac arrest. Internal bleeding caused by a large wound in the left pulmonary vein was detected, and despite prolonged internal and external cardiac massage, the princess was pronounced dead at 4 a.m., aged 36.

On the night of August 31, 1997, at 5:30 a.m., Professor Riou, head of the resuscitation team at the Pitié-Salpêtrière hospital, announced Princess Diana's death to the press. The next day, the whole world heard the news; thousands of people came to lay wreaths of flowers and candles outside the gates of Kensington Palace in London, the princess's residence. Pointing the finger at the role of the paparazzi and the tabloid press in the affair, Diana's brother, Earl Charles Spencer, accused journalists, editors and newspaper owners of having "blood on their hands".

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Criticized for her silence and for underestimating the grief of the British people, Queen Elizabeth II finally spoke out on English television on the eve ofLady Di's funeral. Her state funeral in London on September 6, 1997 was attended by over three million people. In Paris, the Flame of Liberty above the tunnel was quickly covered with flowers, photographs and anonymous words in tribute to the princess.

Thereafter, the wildest rumors and worst-case scenarios were circulating about the causes of the accident, which was shrouded in mystery, such as the idea that Lady Di, pregnant by her lover, had been killed by the royal family. But neither these rumors nor the photographers arrested at the scene of the tragedy were prosecuted. The investigation concluded that the homicide had been caused by the negligent driving of Princess Diana's Mercedes and the vehicles in pursuit.

Even today, the Flamme de la Liberté, overlooking thewestern entrance to the Pont de l'Almatunnel, is constantly covered with messages and flowers. The square where it stands has been renamed Place Diana in 2019. Initially offered to France by the United States in gratitude for the restoration work carried out on the Statue of Liberty in 1986, on the occasion of its centenary, the monument is now presented as a commemorative stele to Princess Diana.

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Pont de l'Alma
75008 Paris 8

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Iconography: Top: The Flame of Liberty © Zairon, CC BY-SA 4.0 Flowers for Princess Diana's Funeral © Maxppp - ALPHAPRESS, CC-BY-2.0

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