September 01, 1997 12:00 PM

DIANA DEAD. The announcement came abruptly and with ferocious clarity—waking up Britain on a cool Sunday Morning, interrupting American late-night TV movies and talk shows, and sports events around the world. And yet no matter how concrete the headline, how firm the commentator’s voice, the public responded with stunned disbelief.

Diana Dead. It was a death both ordinary and chillingly unique. In Paris on Aug. 31, in a tunnel that runs along the Seine, the princess was killed in a highspeed car crash that also claimed her companion, Dodi Al Fayed. With a drunk driver pushing the speedometer of Dodi’s automobile reportedly past 100 mph and a motorcycle fleet of photographers giving chase (at least one stopped to shoot the wreck), there was plenty of blame to go around, and go around it did, enfolded in rage and grief.

Diana Dead. Prince Charles, whose horrific duty it was to tell his sons that they had lost their mother, numbly walked alone on the grounds of Balmoral Castle. The sidewalks around her residence at Kensington Palace turned into an ocean of flowers. In South Africa, Diana’s brother Lord Spencer lashed out at the press. “I am glad,” he said, “she is in a place where no human being can ever touch her again.”

On Aug. 30, the last night she had fended off those advances, Diana sat with Dodi inside Paris’s Ritz Hotel. Amid the starched napery of L’Espadon restaurant, the 36-year-old princess—a woman who had endured so much, who had cracked and mended in public and in private and who appeared at last to be on the verge of completing a circle of satisfaction in her life—seemed happy. Al Fayed had bought her a $200,000 gold-and-diamond “friendship” ring. Hotel guests who observed the couple said they appeared very much in love.

Bothered by the attention they sparked in the restaurant, though, the pair dined alone in the hotel’s sumptuous Imperial Suite. Informed that about a dozen paparazzi were gathered outside the venerable Ritz—owned by Dodi’s father—the couple decided to slip out the back door to go to his luxury apartment near the Champs Elysées. Shortly after midnight, they made their getaway behind the tinted windows of a black Mercedes S-280. Dodi’s bodyguard, Trevor Rees-Jones, rode next to driver Henri Paul, the hotel’s deputy director of security. Paul’s blood later showed an alcohol level nearly four times the French legal limit, as well as traces of an antidepressant and another prescription drug.

Rescue workers called to the accident scene—the car, hurtling into the traffic tunnel, hit a support column, possibly rolled over and then slammed into a wall—pronounced Al Fayed and Paul dead, while Rees-Jones and Diana were rushed to La Pitié-Salpêtrière hospital. The bodyguard, the only one wearing a seat belt, was the lone survivor. A team of some 20 doctors and nurses worked for two hours over Diana, who had suffered massive internal hemorrhaging. But she was declared dead at about 4:00 a.m. on Aug. 31.

The following days passed in a bewildering blur of revelations, requiems and recriminations. As her subjects sobbed in the streets of London, the Queen remained at Balmoral, silent and seemingly unsympathetic (“Your People Are Suffering; Speak To Us Ma’am,” The Mirror chided). Finally, even the wall of Windsor reserve began to crumble. Showing Di-style warmth, Prince Charles stepped out at Kensington Palace with his sons to mingle with and reach out to the grateful crowds. Even the Queen responded to the massive public outcry. In an unprecedented live TV address, representing a monarchy that would never be the same, she seemed, finally, to understand. “No one who knew Diana will ever forget her,” she said. “Millions of others who never met her, but felt they knew her, will remember her.” (The next day, as the princess’s casket passed before her, the Queen, who by tradition bows to no one, lowered her head.)

As the funeral procession moved past more than a million mourners lining the route to Westminster Abbey on Sept. 6, there was no more poignant cry than that written in a childish hand and attached to a bouquet of white roses atop Diana’s casket. Prince Harry had penned a single word on a card: “Mummy.”

Diana’s funeral, as she would have wished, united the disparate elements of her life. Together, the Spencer family, the Palace and new Prime Minister Tony Blair somehow spanned the traditions of centuries and the clash of cultures. The 1,900 mourners in the Abbey (more than 2 billion watched on TV) included royalty and rock stars, fashion designers and charity workers. The service was set to hymns as well as to what would become a global pop anthem: Diana’s friend Elton John rendered a reworked version of his ode to another abbreviated life, “Candle in the Wind.” After he sang, the applause of the throngs gathered outside penetrated the stone Abbey walls. Diana’s sons, whose stoicism that day had been heroic, lost their composure.

In a ringing and outspoken eulogy, Lord Spencer urged his sister’s supporters not to canonize her, but to remember her foibles and flaws and “innermost feelings of suffering that made it possible for her to connect with her constituency of the rejected.” With a meaning unmissed by the Windsors, he went on to vow that Diana’s “blood family” would continue to guide her sons along the path of royal realism she had begun, arming them “spiritually and emotionally for the years ahead.”

As the hearse slowly made its way toward Althorp House some 75 miles away, “the people’s princess,” laid out in a formal black Catherine Walker coatdress, was mourned with applause and more bouquets from tens of thousands of ordinary Britons who lined the route. At the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund, donations as poignant as a few pennies and as remarkable as $4.8 million began to pour in.

Slowly, near the end, growing almost daily in confidence, Princess Diana had undergone a transformation. She loved ballet and she spoke to the millions who watched her in the universal language of the body. The message she imparted in her posture was elegant and direct: I am finding myself, and you are invited along on this rocky journey. As the hearse entered the gates of Althorp, the journey was done at last. In death, Diana Spencer found the quiet she so craved in life. She was laid to rest on an island in a lake on the estate where she spent her teen years. “She used to enjoy the quiet there,” says former Spencer’ housekeeper Betty Andrew. “It’s a very peaceful place, among the trees and the birds. Very peaceful.”

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