Just after midnight on August 31, 1997, news began to surface of a car crash involving the most-photographed and obsessed-over woman of her time: Princess Diana. Her tragic death at age 36 would send shock waves around the globe, and even 20 years later, it remains one of the major news events of the modern age. Here, PEOPLE’s royals reporters share their memories of covering the tragedy in its first chaotic and confusing hours – and the heartbreaking aftermath.
Simon Perry, Chief Foreign Correspondent: I was on duty, the main point of contact for reporting for PEOPLE in London that weekend. It had all been quiet. I came in from a night out, and after watching some football switched over to check the news on my teletext. (This was before broadband and Internet were readily available.) I saw the headline that Diana and her boyfriend Dodi Al Fayed had been involved in a car crash. It was about 12:30 a.m., so early in terms of the details. I gathered what everyone else did: That Dodi was thought to have died and a blonde woman had been seen staggering from the wreckage. Of course, that turned out not to be the case.
At moments like this, you tend to go into professional mode, shocked with the sadness of what’s happened but the enormity of the story means you work through it. It was when I called my wife, who was away with friends that weekend, that I felt the depth of feeling for the princess: I heard the sadness crack in her voice when I recounted what had happened. This was how millions around the country felt as they woke to the news.
By midday we had reporters in Paris, at the palaces and en route to the small airfield on the edge of London to record the homecoming of Diana’s coffin. I had one young reporter head to Buckingham Palace, where the first flowers had been left by those on the way home from night clubs. None of us could imagine the vast sea of cellophane-covered flowers that would grow there – a sight never before seen in Britain.
Peter Mikelbank, Paris-Based Foreign Correspondent: The accident occurred at the end of my street, and the wreck was still in the Pont de l’Alma tunnel blocking traffic, causing enormous tailback in the opposite direction when I arrived. I recall the disbelief in people’s eyes, and it became a story you lived. With police investigations and court cases, it spanned 10 years of my reporting life. Those here in Paris don’t talk about it much. It’s still a personal story for many. You knew some of the photographers, remember who stood beside you at the hospital as vividly as you recall seeing Prince Charles’ car arriving in the late afternoon, slowing to turn into the drive. I remember driving through the tunnel the next day, counting the pillars. Remembering the scramble, people calling from halfway across the planet, I know now it changed the way we reported events. We had stone-age gear, cellphones and computers weighing pounds. I carried a small camera and had film developed afterward.
We trained into London, joining a band of PEOPLE correspondents from London, Berlin, Athens and Miami and prepared for the unthinkable funeral.
On Saturday, traffic was banned and central London was ghost-like. Starting out from Piccadilly at 4 in the morning, we joined a silent trailing crowd. We held a position by Kensington Palace’s gate. I recall the disbelief on every face, the cortege, Diana’s yellow-and-red flag draped casket, the young princes walking behind. I remember returning to Kensington at dusk Monday, seeing it had grown into a fairy garden, a waist-deep maze of flowers, notes, candles and cards. There I spoke with one family who had driven down from Manchester. “You must understand,” the father explained, holding his two young daughters close. “We’re a country which for nearly 20 years has been dominated by three women. And Diana was the one we found sympathetic.”
Nina Biddle, Foreign Correspondent: I got on a train to Paris where I visited the overpass over the Pont de l Alma tunnel. Lots of stunned people (mostly tourists) were congregating there, as well as at the nearby Flame of Liberty statue, which had become a repository for notes in different languages and flowers for Diana. Paris, which can sometimes feel melancholic, felt even more so than usual. The night we closed the story, a couple of days after when I was back in London, we worked all day and all night. I remember visiting Kensington Palace on the way home at the break of dawn, and the astounding sea of flowers surrounding the huge wrought-iron gates, their overwhelming fragrance and the muffled sound of people crying.
Royals Flashback: 18 Iconic Princess Diana Moments
Philip Boucher, Foreign Correspondent: I had just graduated from University and was working the night shift at Heathrow Airport. It was dark when the first reports started to appear on our office radio. Initially the information was sporadic. Then, slowly, the terrible picture began to emerge.
Each update was listened to intently by my four-person shift as we absent-mindedly complied customs forms. Then at some long hour of the morning the news was confirmed, sending the office into involuntary gasps followed by a heavy, sustained silence.
I left Heathrow at 6 a.m. and drove across London, knowing that I was one of the few to have heard but that soon the whole city would be open-mouthed in front of the BBC morning news. After a few hours sleep I woke to find the whole world had spun on its axis. London was in shock, the TV was a blanket of news and the stunned emotion was beginning to pour out across the country. It was the only subject anyone wanted to talk about.
Monique Jessen, Foreign Correspondent: I had just finished college and was enjoying a night out in London celebrating a friend’s birthday. We piled into a taxi home (all a little bleary-eyed I have to say), and I remember the taxi driver turning the radio up: Princess Diana had been in a car accident in Paris. I remember the silence in the car as we all listened intently. I remember them mentioning something about Diana having a broken arm – none of us realized the seriousness of the accident at all. It wasn’t until the next morning that I heard she had died. I remember the sky being so grey and bleak that day as everyone watched the news for updates.
On the day of her funeral, the roads were empty. Outside the gold gates of Kensington Palace, there was a cascading sea of flowers, notes and pictures of hearts tied to the trees where people were sitting, openly weeping. It was like a tidal wave of sadness had washed over the country. People were praying and crying for a woman they had never met. It was one of the strangest and saddest things I have ever seen.
For full PEOPLE coverage of the 20th anniversary of Princess Diana’s death:
•PEOPLE’s special edition Diana: Her Life and Legacy is available now
•Princess Diana: Behind the Headlines is streaming on the new People/Entertainment Weekly Network (PEN). Go to PEOPLE.com/PEN, or download the PEN app on your favorite mobile or connected TV device