Three people were responsible for the death of Princess Diana in the hot dark hours after midnight on Aug. 31, 1997, and all of them were killed that evening: Henri Paul, who drove the Mercedes that crashed beneath the Place de l’Alma near the Seine River in Paris; Dodi Fayed, who was riding in the back seat, and Diana herself, who was sitting beside him.
A massive three-year investigation of conspiracy theories surrounding those deaths, to be issued in London tomorrow by Lord Stevens, may not put the case so bluntly. But the British press has reported that Lord Stevens will conclude, as the French police did very quickly after the fact, that Diana’s death was an accident. Reports that the CIA was bugging Diana’s communications (flatly dismissed as “rubbish” by an agency spokesman) and that the U.S. National Security Agency has files mentioning Diana’s name (which is hardly surprising) do not change the basic narrative at all.
This is a story I have followed for a long time. I was in Paris that night. I arrived at the Place de l’Alma shortly after the bodies of the men and the dying Diana had been taken away, and I watched as the smashed car was pulled from the tunnel. A few hours later, at the hospital, I was on the phone with an American satellite network at the moment that a French doctor announced formally and definitively that Diana had died. I conveyed that message to the world, and because I became, in that instant, the voice of Diana’s death, I have been asked often since then what “really” happened. The Stevens investigators themselves contacted me briefly a few months ago, looking for one person I interviewed the week after Diana’s death who claimed to be a witness.
Nothing presented by any source has ever caused me seriously to doubt the police conclusions. But how did such an accident happen? Diana’s death is no less a tragedy for being inadvertent, and to my mind it is even sadder because it was so pointless; the only real mystery is about the workings of fate. At least five decisions were made by Diana and Dodi and Henri Paul on Aug. 30, 1997 that cost them their lives. None of those decisions were especially momentous in itself, yet taken together they led ineluctably to the tragedy we all remember from that night.
First, let’s clear away some of conspiratorial fog surrounding this case. Central to the thesis that Diana was murdered is the myth that the princess and Dodi were in love, that they were going to be engaged and, by some accounts, that she—mother of a future king of England—was already pregnant with the child of this Muslim paramour. Dodi’s father, Mohamed Al Fayed, has built an extravagant memorial to their romance in Harrod’s, the department store he owns in London. Dodi’s father has also hired many lawyers and private investigators to pursue the conspiratorial truth as he believes it: that Diana was killed in a plot carried out by the British intelligence services at the behest of royal racists.
But Diana was not pregnant, and her butler, Paul Burrell, says that she was not in love with Dodi. The younger Fayed might have intended to pop the question, but according to Burrell, the princess never intended to say yes. Did she fear dying in a prearranged car crash? Her correspondence says she did. But that obsession, which even her brother thought related to “mental problems,” preceded her dates with Dodi. If there was no serious Diana-Dodi romance, then the core motive for conspiracy evanesces like rain on a summer sidewalk.
Then there are questions of basic practicalities. If you are a professional killer (and my quarter century covering guerrilla wars and terrorism has put me in touch with a few), then you want to keep the plot as simple as possible and base it on reliable information about the target’s movements. The Diana conspiracies depend on the assumption that the route Diana would travel that night was knowable, and indeed known. But this was no motorcade. In fact, the itinerary was made up on the spur of the moment.
Again, let’s step back for a second and look at the context. Dodi and Diana had visited Paris earlier in the summer and had a very relaxing time. They were able to dine at Lucas Carton, an exquisite restaurant in the middle of town, unmolested and almost unnoticed. But when they returned on Aug. 30, their world had been changed by the publication of a grainy out-of-focus picture showing the two kissing, however briefly, out in the Mediterranean. The photographer reportedly had earned a fortune approaching a million dollars for that shot. So even though there are laws against paparazzi harassment in France, all bets were off: the fines were much lower than the potential rewards. And the pack was on Diana's trail from the moment she landed in a private plane at Le Bourget airport.
This should have been predictable and predicted, but Diana and Dodi and the bodyguards his father employed—including Henri Paul, who was the deputy chief of security at the Fayed-owned Ritz Hotel in Paris—appear to have been blindsided by the onslaught of photographers chasing them as relentlessly as hounds after a fox. They spent much of the day holed up at the Ritz on Place Vendome. They went to Dodi's apartment at the top of the Champs Elysées (which looked out on the Arc de Triomphe through thick windows with the greenish cast of bulletproofing), and they decided they'd go to dinner at Benoit, on a narrow street in downtown Paris near Les Halles. Dodi asked his stepuncle, Saudi diplomat Hassan Yassin, to go with them, but Yassin, who was staying at the Ritz, declined.
So, Dodi and Diana headed downtown toward the restaurant with a professional chauffeur and bodyguards. But before they got there the pack had closed in again. Without warning—in a fit of pique, perhaps, or of panic—they changed their minds and went back to the Ritz. You can see the irritation on both their faces in the famous security videos as they entered through the hotel’s revolving door. Diana had put her safety and her privacy in Dodi’s hands. Now he was going to get his father’s people to sort things out. This was the first unpredictable—and fatal—decision of the evening.
Henri Paul had been with Diana and Dodi much of the day but had finally gone off the clock when they went to Dodi's apartment. Paul had a drinking problem which he was trying to get under control, but there's no question he'd been under a lot of stress. He was the No. 2 security man at the Ritz, and since the No. 1 guy had left, Paul was running the show. But he was not going to get the top job and knew it. His future was a question mark. Paul may have received some money from the French services, presumably to keep them up to speed on the dignitaries at the Ritz, many of whom are politically important, but he wouldn't be much use to them if he lost his job. And his main income still came from Fayed. So he had to ingratiate himself as much as he could with Dodi and Dodi’s father and, of course, Diana. Not an easy job considering the paparazzi madness.
When Paul got off work, we are not sure exactly where he went. His apartment would have been a grim refuge. Not far from the Ritz on Rue des Petits Champs, it was a small place near the top of a creaking stairwell, just below the common toilet of immigrant workers on the top floor. When I visited it a few days after the crash, the hallway in front of Paul’s door stank of urine. It was quite a contrast with the “palace” where he worked.
Wherever Paul was, he probably thought he could relax. Repeated blood tests since the crash, including the most recent verifying his DNA, establish that he had several drinks that night. His blood alcohol level was three times the legal limit in France. And then, suddenly, he was called back to the Ritz to deal with the paparazzi situation. Chalk that up as fatal, unpredictable decision No. 2.
Paul drove up to the front door in his own car, a tiny Austin Mini with an automatic transmission. Whether he was drunk by that point, and if so, how drunk, is not known. Several people said he did not seem to be impaired, but that would have been hard to tell—especially as he wasn’t the center of attention.
A plan was hatched to escape the paparazzi by sending decoy cars driving away from the front of the hotel while Diana and Dodi would leave from the service entrance on Rue Cambon. As arrangements were made, and Diana and Dodi at last got something to eat, Paul is reported to have had at least two glasses of Ricard, a 90-proof pastis that looks much like grapefruit juice when it is mixed with a little water. (The less water, the yellower the color.) Tests would later show that Henri Paul also had Prozac and Tiapridal—prescribed by his doctor to counter alcohol dependency—in his bloodstream.
The car that pulled up to the back of the hotel was a heavy Mercedes S280 sedan with a stick shift. Henri Paul got behind the wheel. It’s not clear who decided that Paul should drive, but this would count as a third unanticipated, and fatal, decision. The Ritz has maintained since the week after the accident that Paul had been trained to drive such cars, but that misses the point. We all know that if you're used to driving one kind of car—in Paul’s case a tiny Mini with an automatic transmission—and you get in a new one that is twice as big and heavy and configured differently, you're going to have some reflex problems. A few Ricards will, of course, make those reflexes much worse.
So now they are ready to roll. Bodyguard Trevor Rees-Jones is riding shotgun. He puts on his seatbelt, but no one else does—and this is a fourth fatal decision. Dodi sits behind Paul, Diana behind Rees-Jones. They drive down narrow Rue Cambon, which is one-way, then turn onto Rue de Rivoli, which is also one-way, and it’s clear the plan already has fallen apart. As the Mercedes rolls into Place de la Concorde, the pack of photographers on motorcycles and scooters is closing in again.
From Concorde, it is a straight shot up the Champs Elysées to Dodi's apartment at the Arc de Triomphe, a landmark you can see quite clearly from the bottom of the avenue. At a brisk walk, the journey takes about 20 minutes, in the Metro, less than five. If they’d taken that direct route up the Champs, it’s a good guess they’d all be alive today. But at that hour on a Saturday night, even in late summer when the rest of Paris is pretty empty, traffic on the city’s most famous avenue can bog down as movie theaters let out. Someone in the car—Dodi? Diana? Henri Paul?—decided to take another route to outrun the photographers who were on motorcycles and scooters. This was the final, fatal decision that could not have been predicted by anyone outside the car.
Henri Paul continued around the Place de la Concorde, turned right onto the Cours la Reine and put the pedal to the metal. The Mercedes roared down the four-lane tree-lined road near the Seine River at upwards of 80mph.
The Cours la Reine looks wide open, but it's in fact a very treacherous little highway with a couple of nasty surprises. (If you are looking at a map, you need to know its name changes several times as well.) As you approach the tunnel under Place de l’Alma, a side road allows traffic to come directly onto the main drag. In Paris, cars entering from the right have the right of way, even when they’re coming from a little side road onto a major thoroughfare, so there's always a danger someone will pull out suddenly without looking. Furthermore, as the road dipped down into the tunnel, there was a distinct bump that would cause a light car at high speed to lift up off its wheels and even a heavy car like the Mercedes that Henri Paul was driving would rise up disconcertingly on its shocks. Then you were in the tunnel.
We do not know precisely what a small, cheap, slow old Fiat Uno was doing there that night, but it's a good guess that it pulled in off the side road and Paul, focused on the paparazzi fading into the distance behind him, never saw it until he was almost on top of it. When he did, he overcorrected to miss it—perfectly natural in such an unfamiliar car, especially since he was drunk. He clipped the Fiat's tail light and slammed into one of the exposed pillars in the middle of the tunnel. The Mercedes spun around at speed. Paul and Dodi were thrown all over the inside of the car and killed instantly. (In unpublishable photographs, Dodi's body looks like a broken rag doll.) Trevor Rees-Jones, despite his seatbelt and airbags, had his face shredded by the windshield. Diana, when the car came to rest, was seated in the well behind the right front, clearly in shock but breathing and with no conspicuous external injury.
From this point on, we can second-guess the procedures and competence of the emergency crews that arrived on the scene. But Diana had a torn vein leading into her heart. The fates, and the actions of the people in the car, had already decided that three people would die. (Rees-Jones was saved by his seatbelt.)
The great missing link in this narrative, of course, is the driver of the Fiat Uno, who appears never to have been found. Why did he or she never come forward? The answer is not hard to find. Having narrowly escaped death and driven on from the scene of the crash (a crime), and having no idea who was in the Mercedes, the driver would have woken up the next morning to discover that Princess Diana had been killed in front of his eyes and all the photographers who were on the scene were arrested in connection with her death. To come forward would be to invite prosecution—and, in any case, it was weeks later before the driver would know his or her make of car had been identified by the police as being in the tunnel. If the driver was trying to hide something else—lack of a license, a late-August tryst, whatever—there'd be even less reason to ’fess up.
Three years ago, I went over all this with Dodi’s father, Mohamed Al Fayed, first at a dinner with mutual friends and then in a telephone interview. He explained his well-known belief in a conspiracy by the royal family to eliminate Princess Diana. “She was being followed up by M.I.6 and M.I.5 [the British foreign and domestic security services],” said Fayed. “All her actions everywhere. This is why they know when she’s going to be with Dodi, when she’s going to announce [the] engagement, when she’s going to pick up the ring. Everything was planned, you know.” An alleged British agent named James Andanson supposedly tracked the couple in Paris, lying in wait with a tiny Fiat Uno to make them crash in the tunnel. (Andanson was cleared by the French police, but years later was found burned to death in another car. Officially, the Fiat Uno involved in the crash was never found.)
And the choice of routes that night? So many different ones could have been taken. Indeed, it would have been natural to exit the Cours la Reine before the tunnel to go up to Dodi’s apartment via the Avenue d’Iena or the Avenue Marceau. Fayed insisted that Henri Paul was really working for M.I.6, and he was killed at the wheel that night while following orders, but of course didn’t know that he was intended to die. Fayed wouldn’t countenance any discussion of Henri Paul’s inebriation: “If you believe that this was a drunken driver then forget about the interview,” he told me.
Alright, Mr. Fayed. But perhaps you wonder, too, why Dodi and Diana, knowing the Ritz was surrounded by paparazzi, didn’t just spend the night there. After all, it’s the family hotel. “One of the security called me and told me it’s havoc outside on Place Vendome,” said Fayed. “I called Dodi personally. I say, ‘Please.’ I begged him: ‘Don’t go out. Just stay there. You’re in a beautiful suite. You don’t need to move tonight.’ I say ‘Please.’ He told [me], ‘No, I want to give her everything ... I will see. Maybe I will stay in the hotel.’ Twenty minutes later the hotel calls me [and] says Dodi was killed, you know, and Diana is in hospital.”
Dodi Fayed listened to someone else. To Henri Paul, perhaps. Or to Diana. Or to the bodyguards or, most likely, to his own judgment. And the rest is tragedy.