Princess Diana's tragic death in a Paris car crash on August 31, 1997 shocked the world
Princess Diana’s tragic death in a Paris car crash on August 31, 1997 shocked the world. It would become one of the biggest news events of the 20th century – and the only time PEOPLE has ever featured a photo-only cover with no headline. Here is that cover story in its entirety.
To her ex-husband, Prince Charles – as well as the rest of the world – the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, was an unimaginable shock. On Sept. 1, the day after Diana, 36, and her companion Dodi Al Fayed, 42, died in a cataclysmic car crash in Paris, the distraught Charles walked the hills surrounding Balmoral, the Queen‘s castle in Scotland. According to Britain’s Daily Mail, the prince, 48, who had consoled himself with stiff martinis and late-night calls to friends including his mistress, Camilla Parker Bowles, was spotted wandering alone at 6:30 a.m. under dour gray skies. “No one,” wrote the Mail’s Geoffrey Levy and Richard Kay, “has seen him racked with such a sense of frustration and confusion…. Over and over he asked himself how it could be that the fresh and uncomplicated girl he married when she was 20 should end her life in the mangled wreck of a car speeding through Paris.”
With Diana’s body lying in the Chapel Royal at St. James’s Palace in London, the world seemed to be pondering the same question. If ever a life had seemed destined for greater things, it was Diana’s. In the words of designer Elizabeth Emanuel, who created the princess’s 1981 wedding dress, “She wasn’t meant to go now; she had such an incredible amount to give still.”
As the Lord Chamberlain’s office and the Spencer family finalized plans for Diana’s Sept. 6 funeral at Westminster Abbey (a rite that would include people whom she had touched through her charity work) and her private burial at her family church in Northamptonshire, her admirers were swept up in grief. And there was anger as well – at the swarm of paparazzi who pursued the Mercedes in which she and Al Fayed had been riding into a tunnel alongside the Seine; at the driver, a Ritz Hotel employee who, according to investigators, was legally drunk when the car flew out of control at a reported 121 mph; and at the press in general, whom many blamed for the death of a woman who lost all claim to privacy when she became a princess.
Ironically, Di’s life had seemed full of promise at the time of her death. Publicly involved since July with the attentive Al Fayed, a splashy Egyptian-born businessman and movie producer (Chariots of Fire) who was the son of the controversial billionaire Mohamed Al Fayed, she had vacationed with him three times in five weeks. On Aug. 21 the two began a private cruise on his family’s $32 million yacht, the Jonikal, exploring Riviera retreats and ending on the Costa Smeralda, where Diana was “glowing, enough to fill the room,” according to a guest at the Cala Di Volpe hotel. Dodi, meanwhile, was spotted at a boutique buying cashmere sweaters with a bodyguard. “All were size 54, which we assumed were for him,” says the saleswoman. “Then he bought a size-44 cashmere knit blouson with long sleeves and buttons. When his friend asked, ‘Who are you buying that for?’ he said jokingly, ‘You don’t know?’ It was obvious it was for Diana.”
On the day they died, the two returned to Paris in a jet belonging to Harrods, one of Mohamed Al Fayed’s properties. Arriving on the afternoon of Aug. 30, the lovers relaxed in a $2,000-a-night suite at the Ritz–another jewel in Al Fayed’s crown. Local lensmen lay in wait outside the entrance, but Dodi’s chauffeur, driving a Range Rover, was able to shake paparazzi who later pestered the couple near the Champs Elysees.
That evening, Diana telephoned the Daily Mail’s Richard Kay, who reported that she “was as happy as I have ever known her. For the first time in years, all was well with her world.” Exuberantly, Diana told Kay that she hoped to step back from charity work to concentrate on her private life. And five days earlier, she had suggested in an interview with the newspaper Le Monde that she was contemplating a dramatic move; branding the British press as “ferocious,” she said she would long since have fled the country if not for her sons. “Abroad it is different,” she said. “There I am received with kindness.”
That night was mild, with pinkish clouds drifting through a clear sky over the Seine. Close to 10:30 p.m., Diana and al Fayed were seated in the Ritz’s luxurious L’Espadon restaurant. Undisturbed, they locked eyes and murmured quietly over dinner (which, for Diana, was scrambled eggs with wild mushrooms and asparagus, along with sauteed sole). “They looked like two love-struck teenagers,” reported one Ritz staffer.
But as happened so often in Di’s life, reality intruded. At about 11:15, the maitre d’hotel whispered that about 30 photographers were massed outside the hotel. Holding hands, Diana and Dodi retreated to the private suite. There, the couple decided to race past the stakeout on their way to Dodi’s apartment off the Champs Elysees. At around 11:45 p.m., Dodi’s Range Rover, with his regular chauffeur, sped away from the Ritz. Two more decoys followed, but most of the photographers didn’t bite.
When the couple finally left at around 12:15 a.m., it was in a black Mercedes S 280 driven by Henri Paul, the hotel’s assistant director of security. A stocky, balding Breton of 41, Paul was a former French Air Force commando. He was a seasoned name-dropper who relished chauffeuring stars and had twice completed a Mercedes-Benz training course. Scheduled to be off duty that night, Paul, whose blood alcohol level was later found to be triple the French legal limit, taunted photographers by announcing, “You won’t catch up with us.”
With Paul in the driver’s seat, Al Fayed’s Welsh bodyguard Trevor Rees-Jones, 29, beside him and Diana and Dodi in the back, the Mercedes, with its tinted windows, screeched away. After the Place de la Concorde, Paul sped onto an expressway along the Seine. On the mile-long stretch to the tunnel beside the Place de l’Alma, he picked up speed but lost none of their pursuers – at least seven cameramen on five motorcycles and scooters.
Then it happened: “There was this huge, violent, terrifying crash followed by the lone sound of a car horn,” says waiter Jerome Laumonier, who was near the tunnel entrance. Veering out of control on a slight curve, the Mercedes had hurtled head-on into the 13th concrete support column. Rolling over and slamming into the opposite wall, it came to a stop facing oncoming traffic. In the front seat, air bags were sprayed with blood, and Paul’s body pressed on the horn.
The paparazzi descended seconds after the crash. One photographer called his agency on his portable phone. “It’s a catastrophe,” he said. “She’s been killed.” With ambulances 15 minutes away, at least one cameraman began shooting the princess and Al Fayed, who died at the scene. Angry onlookers reportedly attacked him before police arrived, and gendarmes confiscated his film. (Arrested at the scene, the photographers – now free – face charges of crimes including manslaughter and failing to aid accident victims. They could draw up to 10 years in prison, as well as six-figure fines.)
Rushed at 2 a.m. to the hospital La Pitie-Salpetriere – where Rees-Jones, the only occupant of the car who had worn a seat belt, remained in serious condition days later – Diana, whose heart had been restarted once, was surrounded by a team of some 20 doctors and nurses. She quickly went into cardiac arrest; in surgery, physicians discovered a ruptured pulmonary vein and profuse bleeding into her chest cavity. At 4:57 a.m., Interior Minister Jean-Pierre Chevenement passed on the news of her death. (Rees-Jones, it seems, will survive, though his grandmother reports, “He is not as well as everyone says. He’s been knocked about quite a bit.”)
That morning and throughout the week, public distress over the princess’s death was most intense in London, where thousands of dazed mourners made pilgrimages to Buckingham Palace and Kensington Palace, Diana’s home. They buried the wrought-iron gates in daisies and lilies and propped up hand-lettered signs – “Born a lady, became a princess, died a saint.” Flags were lowered to half-mast, and services were held at churches including St. Paul’s Cathedral, where the Waleses had wed on July 29, 1981. At St. James’s Palace, the wait to sign the books of condolence lasted up to 11 hours.
Though their public demeanor was controlled as usual, the Windsors were profoundly shaken by the death of the woman they had so recently seen as an embarrassment. At Balmoral, Charles had learned of the tragedy within an hour. He did not wake William and Harry, who were to rejoin Diana at Kensington Palace that night, until 7:15 a.m., when he “quickly ushered them into a private room,” a source told the New York Post. “He said how he and their mother loved them very much, and he soberly explained that [she] had been in a very serious accident. He gently led into the fact that… Diana was dead.”
Assembling, at the Queen’s insistence, for the 11 a.m. service at Balmoral’s Craithie Church, the family, including the 97-year-old Queen Mother, appeared shocked but calm. Before the service, Charles spoke with Rev. Robert Sloane, who said he “was struck by the way they seemed to be bearing up – it was clear they had gone through great grief and trauma.” (Camilla Parker Bowles, at her Wiltshire house, was said to be “absolutely devastated,” while the Duchess of York, though estranged from Diana, was similarly distressed. On holiday with her daughters in Tuscany, she said in a statement, “There are no words strong enough to describe the pain in [my] heart.”)
From his retreat in Cape Town, Diana’s younger brother Charles, 33, said angrily, “I always believed the press would kill her in the end,” adding, “I am glad she is in a place where no human being can ever touch her again.” At her bungalow off the west coast of Scotland, Diana’s mother, Frances Shand Kydd, 61, was comforted by her parish priest, who told PEOPLE, “She is in terrible pain, like anyone who has lost their child would be. But the outpouring of grief by so many ordinary people has been a huge source of consolation. It’s remarkable how Diana had the ability to touch all our lives.”
The princess’s sisters Lady Sarah McCorquodale and Lady Jane Fellowes joined the red-eyed Prince Charles on his mission to retrieve Diana’s remains. At Aberdeen airport in Scotland, the prince, who promised his sons he would be back in four hours, boarded a private flight to Paris with his party at 2 p.m. on Aug. 31. Still at the hospital, Diana, her face reportedly unscathed, lay in a private room surrounded by flowers. With the area cleared of other patients and policemen standing guard, her only attendant was her loyal butler Paul Burrell, who had flown from London as soon as he learned of her accident. “It was his sad duty to supervise her going into the casket and the way she looked,” says a friend. “It must have broken his heart.”
Greeted by French President Jacques Chirac, Charles and the others were ushered to the hospital mortuary, where, with a breeze from a fan lifting a lock of Diana’s hair, the shaken prince said a private goodbye. Draped in a royal flag, Diana’s blond-wood casket was carried through the emergency-room exit, where 200 people, some trailing intravenous lines, watched solemnly. An honor guard stood by, and a bagpiper played as her survivors disappeared into a Jaguar.
In Paris, mourners (and their bouquets) collected through the week at the Pont de l’Alma; a sheet bearing the hand-lettered message “RIP Diana” appeared over the entrance to the tunnel. Cars honked their horns as they drove through the passageway, and clusters of flowers marked the column struck by the Mercedes.
Though Diana had not, since her divorce, carried the title Her Royal Highness, she would be eulogized as a royal. At RAF Northolt, west of London, the BAe 146 jet was met at 7 p.m. by dignitaries including Prime Minister Tony Blair. A color guard carried the princess into a hearse and placed a bouquet of white lilies atop her coffin. Motorcycle policemen led the way as the hearse headed to the city, where the body was examined at a private mortuary before being taken to St. James’s Palace. Along the 11-mile route, spontaneous tributes erupted – flower petals were sprinkled from overpasses, and simple bouquets were tossed from bridges.
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The interment of Dodi, the man who had made Diana’s last weeks so happy, took place on the day he died. Brought back to England on an Al Fayed jet, his body was buried expeditiously (according to Muslim custom) in Brookwood Cemetery near Woking, 35 miles southwest of London. After a prayer service at the London Central Mosque attended by 650 people, Dodi, the only son of Mohamed al Fayed and the late Samira Khashoggi, sister of Saudi arms dealer Adnan, was laid to rest at 11:30 p.m.; shrouded in linen, the body was placed in a grave facing Mecca. (Al Fayed ordered that Harrods’ outdoor lights be darkened until Diana’s burial and postponed indefinitely his auction of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor’s belongings at Sotheby’s.) “God took their souls to live together in Paradise,” said Dodi’s grieving father.
Though one can only speculate about what might have been, Di seemed to have cared little about Dodi’s past. Overlooking his penchant for Ferraris, flashy women and unpaid debts (he had been sued at least 10 times in California), she appeared to be deeply in love. “Diana and Dodi were made for each other,” says photographer Terry O’Neill, one of the many friends who spoke of him warmly. “He offered the love, sympathy, understanding, quietness and politeness she needed. Also, he had the peripheral things – the boats, houses and security to give her the privacy she [craved].”
The notion of privacy, of course, proved to be a cruel joke. But last week, at least, the princess’s survivors grieved in peace. At Balmoral the royals built a wall between themselves and the outside world; with the Queen, a numb Charles bent to the task of keeping William and Harry engaged in normal life until Sept. 5, when they were to pay their respects to their mother at the St. James’s chapel. On the eve of what one Palace watcher predicted would be “the biggest occasion of its kind since Winston Churchill’s funeral,” Diana’s sons were last seen hiking the hills with their father and his Jack Russell Pooh, out of range of the photographers who stood at a respectful distance across the River Dee.
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