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August 31, 2017 10:10 AM

 

Two decades after Princess Diana‘s tragic death on August 31, 1997, shocked the world, the firefighter who worked to save her life is speaking out publicly for the first time.

In a new interview with The Sun, Xavier Gourmelon opens up about the night Diana died, and even shared what she said to him in the moments before her death.

Gourmelon was the one to pull Diana from the wreckage after the Mercedes in which she was riding crashed at high speed in the Pont de l’Alma tunnel in Paris. After she was taken out of the car, she suffered cardiac arrest. Gourmelon was able to resuscitate the royal, who was just 36 years old, but she died at the hospital shortly after.

Initially, Gourmelon says he did not realize that he was treating Princess Diana — he only found out later, after she had been moved into the ambulance. And at first, he says, it didn’t look as if she had been badly injured.

“The car was in a mess and we just dealt with it like any road accident,” he told The Sun. “We got straight to work to see who needed help and who was alive. Diana said to me, ‘My God, what’s happened?’ “

“The woman, who I later found out was Princess Diana, was on the floor in the back,” he added. “She was moving very slightly and I could see she was alive. I could see she had a slight injury to her right shoulder but, other than that, there was nothing significant. There was no blood on her at all.”

 

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After he resuscitated her, Gourmelon thought he had saved her life, and believed that she’d live through the terrible accident.

“I massaged her heart and a few seconds later she started breathing again,” he said. “It was a relief of course because, as a first responder, you want to save lives — and that’s what I thought I had done. To be honest I thought she would live. As far as I knew when she was in the ambulance she was alive and I expected her to live. But I found out later she had died in hospital. It was very upsetting.”

He also remembers interacting with Diana’s bodyguard, Trevor Rees-Jones, who was sitting in the front seat and lived through the accident, as they were pulling the passengers out of the wreckage.

“He kept asking for the princess, saying, ‘Where is she? Where is she?’ ” he said. “But my team told him to keep calm and not speak. I told him that none of my men spoke English so it was better for him to keep still and not move. I told him not to worry we were looking after everyone.”

Even today, 20 years on, that night lives on in his memory.

“The whole episode is still very much in my mind,” he said. “And the memory of that night will stay with me forever.”

Gourmelon had only opened up about that night one time before, in the inquest into Diana’s death in 2008. The reason he waited is because he continued working with the French fire service up until recently, and was not allowed to speak about his experience to a news outlet. He told The Sun that now that he had concluded his 22-year career in the service, he felt it was “okay” to speak out about his experience.

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

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