November 03, 1997 12:00 PM

AROUND THE RUGBY CLUB IN Oswestry, 150 miles northwest of London, Trevor Rees-Jones is known as a daredevil, a rough-and-tumble guy who loves racing down the field and launching himself at opposing ballcarriers. But no matter what, he never loses his head. “He always [stays] within the rules,” says Mike Owen, a fellow rugby player.

In his job, too, which took him far from his hometown, Rees-Jones, 29, played by the rules that discretion imposed. Friends who knew vaguely that he was a bodyguard in London had no idea he was employed by the Fayed family until the stunning news bulletins naming Rees-Jones as the sole survivor of the horrific Aug. 31 accident that killed Diana and her boyfriend, Dodi Al Fayed. According to French investigators, Rees-Jones was the only one in the Mercedes who buckled his seat belt, which he did just as the Mercedes entered a Paris expressway along the Seine leading to the tunnel seconds before the crash.

Now, of course, the issue is whether the former paratrooper, who had to be cut from the wreckage and spent five weeks in a Paris hospital, will ultimately be able to shed any light on the case. French investigators are scheduled to reinterview him in future weeks. During their last two-hour session, on Oct. 2 in his hospital room, Rees-Jones was more talkative and lucid—especially about the actions of the paparazzi during the fatal day—than at an earlier 25-minute meeting on Sept. 19, only three days after he fully regained consciousness. Still suffering from partial amnesia, Rees-Jones cannot recall entering the tunnel or details of the crash. Yet according to French press reports, he remembers disagreeing with Dodi’s decision to send a vehicle ahead as a decoy for the paparazzi. And he reportedly acknowledges it was his responsibility to notice whether driver Henri Paul—who he says seemed fine but was afterward declared legally drunk—was sober and fit to drive.

Rees-Jones arrived from the crash at La Pitié-Salpétrière hospital in serious condition, and after an immediate tracheotomy he could breathe only with the aid of a respirator. His mother, Gill Rees, stepfather Ernie Jones and wife Susan Rees-Jones first came to his hospital room, dressed in surgical gowns and boots, on the afternoon of Aug. 31.

All agree that Rees-Jones’s recovery from a pierced lung, a shattered lower face and a broken wrist is proceeding astonishingly quickly. Despite two lengthy operations—one to reconstruct his face, lasting 10 hours, on Sept. 4, and a four-hour surgery, three weeks later, to realign his left cheekbone—he was able, on Oct. 3, to walk unaided at a Paris heliport to a Fayed-owned helicopter for the trip to London. “He does complain of feeling sick,” says Sarah Ann Rees, his grandmother. “He’s not too strong yet.”

On Sunday, Oct. 5, Rees-Jones made his first public appearance, at St. John’s the Baptist Church in Oswestry, where he sat in a back pew during the sermon. Then, with his mother at his side, he made his way slowly to the altar to receive communion. Fellow parishioner Mark Jones says his friend’s face was puffy on the right side and his eyes were glazed. Only when he was within a few yards of his seat on his way back did Rees-Jones recognize his buddy. “I could have cried, to be honest, just seeing the shape he was in,” says Jones. On Oct. 11, Rees-Jones braved torrential rain to watch his rugby team play in Oswestry.

Still, those who know him agree that Rees-Jones is up to the challenge of making a full recovery. The son of Colin Rees, a surgeon, and Gill, a nurse, he was born in Germany but returned with his family to Oswestry, near his father’s childhood home, when he was 10. At the now-defunct Fitzalan School, he enrolled in the cadet force, for students planning careers in the armed forces, and made his mark as a record-breaking breast-stroker on the Oswestry Otters swim team, which still awards the Trevor Rees Trophy to the swimmer with the best spirit. Later he became, according to rugby organizer Gwilym Owen, a “larger-than-life” presence both on and off the field. But the death of his father from a heart attack when Trevor was 19 hit him hard. “Trevor is the kind of guy who was very close to his family, very close to his father,” says Gwilym. (Rees-Jones has two brothers, Gareth, 31, a dentist, and John, 28, a college instructor.)

From 1987 to 1992 he served in a parachute regiment of the British army in Northern Ireland. Before taking college courses in sports and physiotherapy, Trevor volunteered at a school near Oswestry for the handicapped, where he helped patients exercise and play wheelchair basketball. “The more disabled the student, the better he was with them,” says a coworker. “He had great empathy.”

Three years ago he was hired as a security team member by Dodi’s billionaire father, Mohamed Al Fayed, owner of Harrods department store and the Ritz Hotel in Paris, where Dodi and Diana dined on the night they died. Fayed employs some 40 bodyguards, each of whom earns roughly $81,000 a year. (While a knowledgeable source in the security business describes Fayed as a “highly dictatorial” employer who hires and fires at whim, Fayed has offered to underwrite any additional medical care his employee requires. He also provided Rees-Jones’s family with an apartment, security and transportation during their Paris stay.)

Despite the travel demands involved in his job, Rees-Jones’s life always remained centered in Oswestry, where every other weekend until the accident he would play for his beloved rugby club. When the team drops an important game, says friend Mark Jones, “he’ll sit in the changing room for a half an hour and sulk. He just doesn’t like to lose.” All the same, Rees-Jones never lets his competitiveness overshadow his natural charm or his love of a good time. Says Keith Barrow, coach of the Oswestry Otters: “He is extremely popular in town. Quick with a joke. Everyone likes Trevor.”

In August 1995, he married Susan Jones, now 29, a grade school friend who was working in London as a buyer for Harrods. In recent months the couple, who had moved back to Oswestry, where Susan opened a bridal gift shop, had separated. Yet Susan rushed to her estranged husband’s Paris bedside after the accident. “I am naturally very fond of Trevor,” she said in a statement, “and will give him my full emotional, moral and any other support I can possibly give.”

Considering that, and his famous determination, friends are confident Rees-Jones will make it all the way back. “He is one bloke I would bet me hat on that he would pull through,” says Mike Owen. “He’s a tough bloke.”

ALEC FOEGE

BRYAN ALEXANDER in Oswestry and PETER MIKELBANK and CATHY NOLAN in Paris

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