The world is somber today as we remember Diana, Princess of Wales, on the 20th anniversary of her death.
It was on this day, August 31, in 1997, that “the People’s Princess” was killed in a car accident that changed the course of British and global history.
36-year-old Diana was in the French capital with Dodi Fayed, a man she had been romantically involved with for several weeks. The couple planned to spend the night at Hotel Ritz Paris—owned by Dodi’s father—before going back to London.
On that evening, they made plans to have dinner at a restaurant in the city, but the paparazzi’s persistence on following their moves made them reconsider.
Instead, Diana and Dodi decided to drive to his apartment for some privacy. The hotel’s acting security manager Henri Paul was sent back after a shift to chauffeur them on their last-minute ride. As Paul had been off-duty for hours before the call, he had been drinking before getting in the car. (A French investigation later concluded that he was two times the legal limit.)
To divert paparazzi, Diana’s two bodyguards left in a decoy car from the front of the hotel while Diana and Dodi got into a 1994 black Mercedes-Benz through the rear entrance. Paul drove the car while Dodi’s bodyguard Trevor Rees-Jones sat in the front seat.
As they left the hotel, Paul reportedly told photographers: “Don’t try to follow us — you won’t be able to catch up,” according to Sky News.
As they approached the Pont de l’Alma tunnel, the car was traveling at around 65 mph—double the speed limit in that area. Once inside, the car is said to have clipped one car before swerving three times and smashing into a pillar, then hitting the stone wall.
Just after the crash, a French doctor drove upon the accident and called emergency services. He told them Diana was unconscious but breathing. Dodi and Henri Paul were killed on impact.
For nearly 40 minutes, Diana was treated at the site of the crash before being taken to Pitie-Salpetriere hospital.
Remaining unconscious, she went into cardiac arrest around 2:10 a.m., and was pronounced dead at 4:00 a.m. the morning of August 31, 1997.
The only survivor of the crash was Dodi’s bodyguard, but he suffered major head injuries and remembered very little about the accident.
Diana’s body was brought back to England for her funeral, which was held on September 6, 1997. More than a million people lined the walking procession route from Kensington Palace to Westminster Abbey that day.
Behind Diana’s coffin walked her brother Charles Spencer, sons Prince William and Prince Harry (ages 15 and 12 at the time) and her former husband Prince Charles (the couple had been divorced a little over one year).
Once at Westminster Abbey, Diana’s funeral was globally televised, drawing 2.5 billion viewers.
After the ceremony, the People’s Princess was laid to rest at the Spencer family estate in Althorp. Her grave sits somewhere on the family’s grounds, surrounded by a lake. 36 oak trees—one for each year of her life—were also planted, along with hundreds of flowers to commemorate her life.
As for her cause of death, a French investigation concluded in 1999 that the fatalities were a result of Paul’s high-speed driving and the level of alcohol and drugs (Prozac and Tiapridal) in his system.
The report also stated that Diana and Dodi would have survived the crash if they had worn their seat belts.
At the request of the coroner, the police began a criminal investigation called Operation Paget in 2004. This inquiry was to assess the multiple conspiracy theories surrounding the Princess’ death. The investigation proved these claims unsubstantiated and the deaths were ruled an accident.
Another inquiry was opened in 2007, this time placing blame on the paparazzi as contributors to the accident.
A verdict of "unlawful killing" due to the "gross negligence" of Paul and the paparazzi was returned in 2008, though no prosecution was made.
Photo Credit: Getty / Tim Graham