It was a last minute decision, made after midnight in a bid to confuse the paparazzi — but it led Diana to the Parisian tunnel that claimed her life.
The news broke on a Sunday afternoon in Australia.
It was August 31 when radio stations started reporting that Diana, Princess of Wales, had been injured in a car accident in France.
It was not long before the horrifying truth was revealed: The most famous woman in the world had been killed in a Paris tunnel.
Her shocking death came after a period that had seen her smiling face beaming out from magazines and newspapers as she travelled to Bosnia and Angola, embracing her emerging status as a self-made global humanitarian.
Only weeks earlier, she had confirmed her first public romance since her divorce from Prince Charles, letting swarms of bobbing paparazzi in the Mediterranean catch her in a clinch with playboy Dodi Al-Fayed.
Her final 24-hours were marked by the lure of new beginnings and contending with old foes.
By the (northern) summer of 1997, Diana was a woman nursing a broken heart. For two years she had been in a clandestine romance with Pakistani heart surgeon Hasnat Khan, a deeply serious man who came from a well-to-do and conservative Lahore family. However, the future looked bleak for the couple.
Khan did not want to go public with their relationship, fearing the ensuing media onslaught. Similarly, while Diana had made two trips to Pakistan during which she had met his extended family and had picked Jemima Khan’s brain about what it was like living in the country, the long term viability of their union looked bleak.
With the royal family planning on making their annual summer pilgrimage to the vast Balmoral estate in Scotland, Diana was casting around for where to take her sons — Prince William and Prince Harry — for a getaway.
After first getting American billionaire Teddy Forstmann to look into renting her a Hamptons house (and then changing her mind for security reasons), Harrods owner, Egyptian billionaire Mohammed Al-Fayed, came to the rescue, inviting the trio to his villa in the South of France.
In July of that year, the three royals arrived to soak up the sunshine and to enjoy the privacy offered by the significant Al-Fayed security team. They also spent time on the titan’s recently purchased $44 million yacht, the Jonikal.
Days into their stay, Mohammed summoned his son Dodi from Paris to help entertain their famous guest, setting into motion the tragic series of events which were to follow.
Despite being far away from fishbowl London, Diana’s every move was still being documented by the press. Vanity Fair reports that during a spontaneous press conference she told them, “You are going to get a big surprise with the next thing I do.”
BACK TO THE JONIKAL
Despite her smiles, Diana was suffering. Prince Charles had recently hosted a highly publicised 50th birthday party for his longtime lover Camilla Parker Bowles at the Wales’ former marital home, Highgrove.
Also, her good friend Gianni Versace was gunned down outside his Miami estate by a serial killer. The Princess flew to Milan for the star-studded funeral and was photographed consoling Elton John.
Finally, on a hot summer’s night, walking in a London park around this time, Diana ended things before Khan could swing the axe, knowing that he had realised they had no future together. Still, she was hopeful that she had the upper hand and could win him back.
With William and Harry flying to Scotland to join their father and grandmother at Balmoral, Diana returned to the Jonikal for a six-day cruise around Sardinia with Dodi.
After her second cruise, August saw Diana make her last humanitarian mission to Bosnia, during which paparazzi photos confirmed her romance with Dodi. (‘THE KISS’ the Sunday Mirror headline read, with reports the shots cost about $1.8 million.)
Returning, the 36-year-old royal again left London for a cruise around Greece, however this time with best friend Rosa Monckton. According to her, Diana was still besotted with Khan and her fling with Dodi was far from a serious relationship.
On August 22nd, Diana and Dodi met up for a third holiday, again jetting off to meet the Jonikal in the South of France.
At 1pm on August 30, 1997, Diana and Dodi boarded a private jet and flew back to Paris. There on the tarmac, they were met by (among other people) Henri Paul, the deputy security director of the fabled Ritz Hotel, a five-star establishment owned by Mohammed Al-Fayed.
Parisian paparazzi has been tipped off about their arrival, and according to reports, Dodi was becoming upset by their hounding. However, by mid afternoon, the People’s Princess was ensconced inside a suite at the Ritz.
Early that evening, Dodi left the hotel with bodyguards in tow and went to Repossi, a high-end jewellery story just outside the hotel in the Place Vendome. There, he picked up a diamond ring that he had ordered for his new paramour.
But what did the ring mean? While later, Mohammed Al-Fayed would claim that his son planned to propose to Diana, her friend Rosa Monckton says that the Princess, still in love with Khan, had no intention of marrying Dodi.
Around 7pm, Dodi and Diana left the hotel by the back entrance, heading to his grand apartment near the Champs Elysee. While they had planned to dine at Benoit, a Michelin-starred restaurant, the incessant presence of 30-or so paparazzi forced them to change their plans. Instead, they headed back to the Ritz for the second time in hours.
After settling into the hotel’s L’Espadon restaurant around 10pm, Dodi is reported to have been suspicious that some other diners might be photographers. They instead headed upstairs and their dinner was served to them in the Imperial Suite. Diana’s last meal involved Dover sole, vegetable tempura and a mushroom and asparagus omelette.
Earlier that evening, with the previous departure of Dodi and Diana, Henri Paul had also gone home. However, when they returned, so did he. Around the same time the couple was starting to eat, he arrived back at the Ritz, joining Al-Fayed’s bodyguards Kez Wingfield and Trevor Rees-Jones in the Vendome bar. Paul was seen drinking two Ricard drinks (an aniseed-flavoured liqueur).
At 11pm, the BBC reports, Paul stepped outside to speak to the waiting press throng, telling them Diana will be out soon, where he is seen “acting bizarrely and overly jovial”.
Half an hour later, at about 11.30pm, Diana and Dodi decided to return to his apartment. Paul suggested a plan to throw off the paps — Wingfield and Rees-Jones would act as decoys, taking the cars the group has been using and leaving from the front door, while Paul and the couple would sneak out the back and leave in a car driven by the security chief.
The bodyguards were dismayed at the idea of the couple travelling without protection and Dodi finally agreed to let Rees-Jones accompany them in their Mercedes.
At 12.20am on August 31, Paul, Rees-Jones, Dodi and Diana left the Ritz in a black Mercedes that was owned by the hotel. Five minutes later, their vehicle crashed into the 13th pillar under a bridge near the Pont d’Alma.
One minute later, French emergency doctor Frédéric Mailliez who was driving by, immediately stopped, the first medic on the scene. Within minutes, police had also arrived and were trying to cordon off the scene from the press.
At 12.32am, less than 15-minutes after the tragic group left the Ritz, eight photographers were arrested and an ambulance arrived. A doctor on board thought Diana had some broken bones and “relatively isolated cranial trauma,” with no suggestion she might be suffering from internal bleeding.
‘STAY AND PLAY’
French emergency medicine dictates that they follow what is referred to as “stay and play”; that is to try and stabilise patients at the scene and then take them to hospital. (As opposed to the US, which follows the “scoop and run” philosophy.
There are suggestions that even if Diana had immediately been whisked to hospital, she would not have survived.)
About 35 minutes after the crash, Diana was removed from the car but went into cardiac arrest, according to Vanity Fair. However, a doctor managed to start her heart again.
It was only 40 minutes after that incident that Diana’s ambulance left the crash site and started the journey to hospital. En route, at 1.55am, the ambulance was forced to stop after Diana went into cardiac arrest again, with paramedics injecting her with adrenaline.
(It would ultimately be one hour and 42 minutes between the Mercedes crashing and Diana arriving at Pitié-Salpétrière Hospital.) The trip from the crash site went unusually slowly, under medical orders to avoid “shocks and bumps,” according to reports.
There, X-rays revealed internal haemorrhaging and Diana went into cardiac arrest again. She immediately underwent emergency surgery to try and drain blood from her chest when it was discovered that a vein near her heart had partially ruptured.
After an hour of pulmonary shocks and heart massage, Diana, Princess of Wales, was pronounced dead at 4.00am, Paris-time.
The first inkling of the tragedy in London came at 12.58am (London-time), right around when Diana went into cardiac arrest on the way to hospital. Maxine Mawhinne was preparing to go on air for the BBC, aided only by a single producer and director, when a news wire flash arrived saying that the Princess had been injured in a car crash.
Mawhinne later recalled: “I turned around to my producer and said, ‘That’s quite interesting. Shall we mention that?’ and he said, ‘Yeah, if you think you’ve got enough to say’. So the music is running, I do the headlines, and then I said ‘Just before we move on, we’re getting reports from Paris that Diana, Princess of Wales, has been injured in a car crash.’ That’s all we had. Then in my ear the producer asked me to just keep going.”
When the first footage of the Mercedes arrived, the severity of the crash became apparent. “I looked up and thought ‘Oh my goodness. How has anyone survived this?’ We already knew that Dodi was dead, but when we saw the car we knew it was awful,” Mawhinne told the Independent.
During those early hours, as news spread around the globe of the situation in Paris, TV stations around the world started taking the BBC’s feed, meaning that their coverage was reaching about half a billion people that morning.
The first concrete suggestion that Diana had passed away came when reports emerged that Foreign Secretary Robin Cook’s plane was being held on the ground in the Philippines. (Protocol says that if there is to be an announcement of a royal death, no UK government member can be flying.)
At 4.41am, the Press Association reported that the Princess of Wales was dead.
At 5.20am, Buckingham Palace confirmed the heartbreaking news.
At Balmoral in the early hours, Prince Charles was left to break the news to his sons.
“I remember just feeling completely numb, disorientated, dizzy,” Prince William said in 2017. “You feel very, very confused. And you keep asking yourself, ‘Why me?’ All the time, ‘Why? What have I done? Why? Why has this happened to us?’”
Hours after learning about their mother’s death, Wills and Harry were taken to Crathie Kirk, the local Balmoral Church as usual. On the way back, they stopped to survey the hundreds of bouquets already left outside the castle’s gates.
At 6pm on the night of August 31, about 24-hours after Dodi went to pick up the mysterious ring for Diana, her ex-husband Prince Charles and two sisters, Lady Jane Fellowes and Lady Sarah McCorquodale arrived in Paris to bring her body home.
On September 6, 2.5 billion people watched Diana’s funeral cortege wend its way through the streets of London. And two bewildered, heartbroken boys followed, their lives irrevocable changed forever.
Daniela Elser is a royal expert and writer with more than 15-years’ experience writing for some of Australia’s biggest media titles. Continue the conversation | @DanielaElser