Sunday, August 31, 1997
The black Mercedes S280 limousine hurtled through the streets of Paris, down the Rue Cambon and right onto the Rue de Rivoli. Only seconds had passed before it came to a screeching stop at the Rue Royale, but already a pack of photographers in cars and on motorcycles had managed to catch up, and were gunning their engines in anticipation of the chase.
Suddenly, the Mercedes carrying the Princess of Wales and her Egyptian-born lover, Dodi Fayed, jumped the light and swung left on the Place de la Concorde. The mother of the future British sovereign, trying to elude the press that hounded her every waking moment, now passed the spot where the guillotine had brought a bloody end to France's monarchy.
The limousine picked up speed as it paralleled the Seine along the Cours-la-Reine ("Queen's Course"), pressing its occupants against the backs of their plush leather seats. Approaching the Alma Tunnel, Diana could see the chestnut trees strung with twinkling white lights, and looming to the left the brightly illuminated Eiffel Tower, now counting down the number of days to the new millennium in lights forty feet high. Another motorist estimated the Mercedes's speed at 110 miles per hour. "The car was flying as it passed me," taxi driver Michel Lemmonier would later recall. "It was like the hounds of hell. There could be only one ending..."
Hitting a sharp dip at the tunnel entrance, the car was catapulted into the air, then slammed down on the surface of the roadway. Swerving wildly to the left to avoid striking a white Fiat in its path, the Mercedes clipped the compact car's bumper before Fayed's driver lost control. In an instant, the Mercedes plowed headlong into one of the eighteen concrete pillars that divided the thoroughfare. The car then spun 180 degrees counterclockwise before slamming into the tunnel wall.
Of the four people inside, only one -- Fayed's bodyguard Trevor Rees-Jones -- was wearing a seat belt. Dodi and his driver, Henri Paul, died instantly. Diana, her earrings torn away by the impact of the crash, lay on the floor behind the front seat.
Henri Paul's body leaned against the horn, sounding a shrill alarm. The tunnel filled with smoke; there was broken glass everywhere. Dr. Frédéric Mailliez, a boyish-looking thirty-six-year-old emergency physician, just happened to be driving by on his way home from a friend's birthday party. Mailliez got out of his white Ford Fiesta and rushed to the twisted wreckage of the Mercedes. "Shit!" he thought as he saw the mangled corpses of Dodi and Henri Paul.
While a volunteer fireman comforted the gravely injured Rees-Jones, Mailliez went to help the blond woman slumped in the back. He lifted Diana's head and gave her oxygen using an "Ambu" -- a French-manufactured portable oxygen mask -- but did not recognize her. "I was too busy," he later explained, "doing my job."
By now more than a dozen photographers were standing nearby, firing off flash after flash -- "like machine-gun fire," Officer Lino Gagliardone recalled. Mailliez whispered words of reassurance to Diana, first in French and then -- after photographers shouted that the woman was from England -- in English. She cried out in pain, and occasionally mumbled something, but the young doctor was too immersed in trying to save her life to stop and decipher precisely what she was saying.
Her sons could not have been far from her mind. Harry would turn thirteen in less than two weeks, and she had wanted to buy a birthday present for him in Paris. But the hordes of press that had descended on the Princess and her new boyfriend made that all but impossible. A virtual prisoner inside her suite at Paris's legendary Ritz Hotel, Diana instead dispatched a hotel staffer to purchase the Sony Playstation Harry had asked for.
Even more fresh in Diana's mind was what she regarded as her most important conversation of the day. William had called just before dinner that evening, concerned about a photo opportunity arranged by Buckingham Palace. William was about to start his third year at Eton, the exclusive prep school, and the Palace had ordered him to pose at the school for photographers from Britain's major news organizations. But he worried that such a staged event might overshadow his younger brother. "I'm just afraid Harry might feel left out," he told his mother, and she agreed. Diana promised William that as soon as she returned to London the next day, she would talk to Prince Charles and they would all come up with a plan that would spare Harry's feelings. "First thing Monday..."
Within six minutes, a rescue unit was on the scene. The mangled bodies of Dodi and Paul were extracted from the wreckage. A bright blue tarpaulin was then placed around the car to shield it from onlookers as firemen with electric chain saws cut away at what remained of the car to free Diana and Rees-Jones.
As the firemen prepared to lift her from the car and place her gently on a waiting stretcher, the Princess of Wales spoke what would be her last intelligible words.
"My God," Diana asked, "what's happened?"
Six hundred miles away at Balmoral, fifteen-year-old William sat bolt upright in his bed. Exhausted from a full day spent fishing the River Dee with his father and his brother, William had buttoned up his tartan plaid pajamas and crawled beneath the covers a little before 11:30 P.M. But over the course of the next few hours, he would fall asleep only to be jolted awake again and again by a sudden, overpowering sense of dread. "I knew something was wrong," William would later say. "I kept waking up all night."
Harry, meanwhile, slept soundly in his room just down the hall...
From Diana’s Boys by Christopher Andersen. © 2001. HarperCollins Publishers. Used by permission.