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Death of Diana: Times journalists recall night of the crash

A totally unprecedented kind of mass anguish, a febrile convulsion of grief, had taken over

Elisabeth Bumiller Stephen Farrell Warren Hoge Sarah Lyall & Craig R Whitney | NYT 

Death of Diana
The Prince and Princess of Wales after the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of York in 1986. Photo: Wikipedia

The death of Diana, Princess of Wales, on Aug. 31, 1997, shook Britain and the world. The New York Times asked five journalists who covered the deadly car accident, which also killed Diana’s companion, al-Fayed, and their driver, Henri Paul, to share their memories and reflections.

The crash in Paris

Craig R. Whitney, then The Times’s Paris bureau chief, now retired and an author: I was awakened at home in Paris sometime after 12:35 a.m. by a call from the Foreign Desk. The wires had just fired out bulletins saying that Diana had been seriously injured in an automobile accident in Paris and that her escort, al-Fayed, and their driver had been killed. Could I verify the reports and file a story for the front page?

Warren Hoge, then The Times’s London bureau chief, now an adviser at the Peace Institute: I was asleep in our London flat when I was awakened by a call from the Foreign Desk around 2 a.m. or so telling me there had been a car crash in Paris involving in which she had been seriously hurt and asking me to start writing her obituary in case she died.

I went to a back office, booted up my computer and began, with the help of what we then quaintly called the library staff in New York, assembling as many clips as I could of articles on Diana that I and other Times correspondents had written.

Whitney: The driver, a hotel employee, had headed west into the tunnel and then lost control and hit one of the concrete pillars dividing the eastbound and westbound lanes. The car crashed at high speed into the right wall, with so much force that the vehicle’s engine was driven into the front seat.

A police official confirmed that Diana was in the car, which he said was being “chased by photographers on motorcycles, which could have caused the accident.” Neither Diana nor the other three occupants had been wearing seatbelts. Grievously injured, Diana had been rushed to Pitié-Salpêtrière hospital on the other side of the Seine in southeast Paris, and soon died there, the French interior minister announced at 4 a.m.

Sarah Lyall, then a London correspondent for The Times, now a writer-at-large: I was at home in London when it happened and I remember there was a kind of delayed reaction in my head, the way there always is when you hear news that does not make sense.

My older daughter, Alice, was 1 ½, and so we were all up very early. “and Diana were in a car accident, and is dead,” my husband said. (Such was the ubiquitousness of Diana and her love life that everyone knew who was.) And then the news came in, that she had died as well.

I remember feeling very upset, even though I was not necessarily a big fan of Diana. She had inserted herself so thoroughly in the culture that it was as if we all knew her. She was always so alive. And so it seemed really shocking that she was dead.

Bringing back the body

Stephen Farrell, then a Times of London reporter, now a staff editor and video journalist at The New York Times: I was asleep at home in London and got a call around 4 or 5 a.m. from a news editor saying: “Diana’s dead. Get to Paris.” Click. I knew all the tabloids and TV would have all the flights booked so I drove off at high speed down the old Roman road to Dover, onto the car train, and at high speed through northern France.

When I got to the Pitié-Salpêtrière hospital there was already the largest crowd of journalists I have ever seen anywhere, before or since. All the British tabloids — including some which were later to feature in the phone-hacking scandal — had reporters standing outside the hospital gate bemoaning that because the paparazzi were involved it was the end of an era — no more chasing Diana around the Mediterranean on hired boats on expenses. They knew that Diana’s sons, and Harry, would be off limits for a long time.

A British Embassy official came over and said there would be a small pool of journalists going into the hospital to cover the Prince of Wales retrieving the body from President None of the British tabloids trusted each other, so I was selected.

As we were led in through a back entrance, patients leaned from their upper-floor windows, shouting “Assassins, assassins” because, I think, they mistook the photographers with long lenses for paparazzi. Some of the photographers were crying.

The Prince of Wales arrived in a convoy of ten vehicles with police outriders to the entrance where Mr. Chirac was waiting with two of his ministers to greet him. The men shook hands, then the prince swallowed hard as they went inside. He and the princess’s sisters were in the hospital for just under half an hour, spending a few minutes alone with the coffin before meeting four surgeons and four nurses who had tried to save her.

At 5:06 p.m., the coffin was slowly carried from the hospital by four pallbearers wearing black suits and peaked caps, followed by two men carrying bouquets of lilies and gladioli. As the convoy left the hospital it was chased by two motorcycle film crews, with one cameraman standing on the pillion seat. Almost a rerun of her last, fatal, journey.

Hoge: Soon after the royal plane with its distinctive red tail and Union Jack motif had landed that evening outside London, Diana’s coffin was taken by an honour guard and carried in funeral lock step to a hearse headed for a private mortuary. The ceremony was conducted in total silence as Prince Charles, Prime Minister Tony Blair and stood watching. The only sound was the flutter of flags in the stiff wind.

The glamour of Diana

Elisabeth Bumiller, now The Times’s Washington bureau chief: I was a reporter at The Washington Post’s Style section and was assigned to cover Nancy Reagan’s trip to the royal wedding on July 29, 1981. The first I saw Diana in person was at a polo match that week, right before the wedding. She was watching Charles play. Diana was dressed fairly simply, and I was struck by how young she looked — and was. She was 20 at the time.

At the polo match, I was among a small band of American reporters, almost entirely women, covering Mrs. Reagan. We watched as the first lady arrived in the same 15-or-so black-car motorcade that had caused a fuss for further tying up traffic all week in London. A short time after Mrs. Reagan arrived at the polo match, the queen drove up — at the wheel of her own Vauxhall station wagon, with a single security guard, or so I remember, in the passenger seat. “The queen is driving herself!” I exclaimed out loud. My words were evidently overheard, because the next day my comment appeared in one of the tabloids as a member of the first lady’s entourage expressing astonishment that the queen was so self-sufficient compared to America’s first lady.

Farrell: What was interesting to me was the contrast between Diana’s public duties and what she was doing in private. I remember the last years of her life as seeming to have been on a slow, sad, trajectory. The tabloid tales of an unhappy marriage had persisted for years, and were finally confirmed by Charles and Diana themselves in media interviews. And in the last year or two the unhappiness seemed to take its toll as Diana sought a role both inside and outside the royal circle, sharing the upbringing of her sons with her estranged in-laws, but also leading her own life.

Two weeks before she died, I was sent to the tiny former mining village of Lower Pilsley in Derbyshire, where Diana had just reportedly flown in a helicopter with to consult a psychic. It was a three-hour drive, but also a million miles, from Buckingham Palace.

Bumiller: Her presence at a charity dinner turned it into an media event, as happened when she appeared in New York in 1995 at an awards dinner for the Council of Fashion Designers of America. Supporters of were critical of her at the time for her role as an American fashion booster — or at least that’s what I wrote in The Times at the time — but Diana did it as a favour to her friend, Elizabeth Tilberis, the late British-born editor of Harper’s Bazaar.

I remember that I talked to Diana in the crush of the crowd and asked her the question that was in all the New York tabloids: Was she moving to New York?

“No, no, no, no,” she said. “My boys are at home, and I’m at home.”

I think she was a little stunned to be in such a crush of 2,500 people — this was at Lincoln Center — and probably a little stunned to have come face to face with a reporter. In any case she was quite polite. I also remember that she had the most beautiful, luminous skin.

She had a new look that night — her hair was slicked back and she was wearing a tight and very low-cut dress by the British designer Catherine Walker. Her presence that evening had all the designers buzzing — I quoted Oscar de la Renta, Bill Blass, Calvin Klein, Donna Karan and Isaac Mizrahi as being excited that she was there.

A nation in grief

Hoge: I saw people sobbing in the streets and surging out of subway stations clutching floral tributes. Mourners thronged the grounds outside her Kensington Palace residence, virtually carpeting the field with flowers and pushing bouquets through the wrought iron gate. Many stood in stricken silence; knelt, prayed, made the sign of the cross, and slumped to the ground in tears.

They took over the city’s parks and public spaces, giving normally imperial London the look of the kind of displaced persons’ camps that Diana might have visited. Dressed in everything from suits and dresses to bluejeans, sweatshirts, and leather jackets, these were the followers of Diana who had not known before what a multitude they were or what influence they had.

They were presenting the world with a portrait of Britain that even they did not know existed — a Britain that was younger, more multiracial, more female and noticeably more overtly emotional than what Britons themselves would have imagined a spontaneous gathering of their compatriots to be. A society that kept its hands clasped behind its back or plunged in its pockets was suddenly throwing its arms around people.

Lyall: It soon became clear that Diana’s death was much greater than itself, that this was rising to level of metaphor. That something tipped in the British psyche, that a totally unprecedented kind of mass anguish, a febrile convulsion of grief, had taken over the country. It was so interesting to feel personally upset (and to not really understand why) as well as to try to figure out what was going on among the British people.

The only thing that seemed comparable, when you talked to people in America about it, was the death of President John F. Kennedy. (which I missed). And it seemed odd, because of course Kennedy was an American president and Diana was a divorced former member of the British royal family. But there was that same sense of shock, of being part of a shared experience of grief and disbelief, of being obsessed by all the details: Who went where; what happened to the body; the funeral arrangements; and of course what Diana’s family and the royal family did in those next few days — all those things took on a huge significance for everyone.

Hoge: For all the people who were out and moving about, they did so with quiet dignity, and there was a remarkable silence, with the only sound the flapping noise of police helicopters. The nation largely halted its public life, with sports events and political campaigning called off, and television and radio stations suspending programing and devoting all their airtime to commentary on Diana’s death.

A contentious funeral

Lyall: It still jolts me when I think back to the funeral procession — Diana’s coffin, smothered by flowers, moving slowly toward Westminster Abbey, followed by five people on foot: (the ex-husband who never understood her, and who divorced her); Prince Philip (the ex-father-in-law who represented everything she was not); Earl Spencer (the brother who treated her cavalierly in life but who became an anguished voice on her behalf in death) and her two young sons, and Harry.

It seemed so unfair to make those boys, dressed in stiff dark suits and looking fragile and bewildered, appear in public like that. I had a parent — my father — die when I was eight, and one of the things that I’m still haunted by is being forced to walk down the center aisle of the church after his funeral, while everyone else turned and watched the family file out.

Bumiller: The one thing that I’ll never forget about her funeral, like zillions of others, was the arrangement of white tea roses on her coffin and the accompanying hand-lettered card that said, simply, “Mummy.”

Lyall: Harry has now come out and said that he and his brother shouldn’t have been made to do that. And now Earl Spencer has said that he wasn’t given the full story, either, that among other things he was told that Diana’s children did want to participate. I do remember all these decisions being made so quickly, in crisis and chaos, so it makes sense that these details were not thought through as well as they should have been. It seemed the whole time that the royal family was really struggling to gain control of a situation that was running away with itself.

At the time I felt (and still do feel) that there was something wrong — patronising, condescending — about having a crowd of men behind Diana’s coffin, especially since two of them had actively rejected her, and then cast her out, when she was alive. I wondered about her two formidable sisters. It seemed that no one understood Diana well enough to know how to deal with anything properly.

Who was to blame?

Whitney: At first the common assumption was that what a spokesman for the Royal Family had called “relentless pursuit” of the princess by the British press since her divorce had made the accident predictable. The French police had found seven photographers, six of them French and one Macedonian, at the accident scene when they arrived, and put them under arrest. Later three more turned themselves in and were put under investigation for possible charges of causing the wreck.

Lyall: Everyone looked for someone to blame. The main culprits quickly shaped up to be the paparazzi, who had hounded Diana in life (and whom she had used almost as cleverly and cynically as they used her); the royal family, which stood by without helping as her marriage deteriorated and had cast her out after her divorce; and maybe the public, which felt some sense of culpability in its own eagerness all those years to feast on gossip — even intrusive, unflattering gossip — about Diana. Maybe if we’d just left her alone, the thinking went, none of this would have happened.

Whitney: It was not the paparazzi who had killed Diana and Mr. Fayed, even though they were following the Mercedes that picked them up at the Ritz’s rear entrance after they had finished dining. It was Henri Paul, the 41-year-old driver had assigned to them, who killed them by driving into the tunnel at a speed three times the legal limit, estimated as high as 90 miles an hour, and losing control.

That was becoming clear already on the Tuesday after the crash, when the police said that tests on his cadaver had shown that he had a blood alcohol level three times the legal limit while driving.

With my Paris bureau colleague Youssef M. Ibrahim, I spent the next days trying to track down who Mr. Paul was and what he had been doing in the days and hours before the fatal accident. We found that he was an aviation enthusiast who had passed the demanding physical for his pilot’s license two days earlier. His job at was acting security chief.

On Aug. 30, Mr. Paul had picked up Diana and Mr. Fayed at Le Bourget airport, north of Paris, where they had flown from Sardinia. He took them to but, Youssef and I found, he had been given the night off at 7 p.m. With photographers besieging the hotel, another driver tried to take them to a restaurant, but could not shake them off and took them back to for dinner.

At 9:45, had called Mr. Paul on his cellphone and asked him to come back. Youssef and I could not find anyone who said he was an alcoholic, nor could we determine whether he had been drinking heavily at any of the locales where he had been seen that night.

But the police had tested his blood three times, and found that it would have taken about 10 drinks to produce the level of inebriation they had found. In addition, they had found traces of antidepressant drugs.

Of course, the photographers and the press frenzy over Diana both played a role in the tragedy, as Roger Cohen, who also worked in The Times’s Paris bureau, wrote a few days after it happened. But it was not the press that caused it.

The legacy for Britain and its monarchy

Hoge: The expressions of anger that led people to applaud Earl Spencer’s rebuke of the family in his eulogy began almost immediately. It grew during the week as the royal family remained aloof and distant in Balmoral, their castle in Scotland, and appeared not to be reacting to the clamor that Diana, whom the public thought the royals had treated shabbily in life, be shown proper regard in death.

By midweek you had front-page headlines: The Mirror’s “Your People Are Suffering, Speak to Us, Ma”am” and The Sun’s “Where Is Our Queen? Where Is Her Flag?”

The flag reference was to the naked flagpole above Buckingham Palace, a tradition when a monarch is not in residence there, but a symbol suddenly to the tens of thousands of mourners that the absence of a Union Jack at half-mast was yet another slight by the House of Windsor.

I talked at the time to the dedicated royalist Harold Brooks-Baker, director of Burke’s Peerage, and he told me, “The flag should be at half-staff. You can’t expect the guy in the street to know about the etiquette and protocol of royal houses.”

Then on the eve of the funeral, the queen spoke in a rare live television broadcast from Buckingham Palace — only the second time in her then-45-year reign that she had given a personal address. (In the first, in 1991 she had called for prayers for soldiers taking part in the Persian Gulf war.)

Speaking from a room overlooking the crowds of mourners milling about in front of the palace, she praised Diana as “an exceptional and gifted human being” and added, “I, for one, believe that there are lessons to be drawn from her life and from the extraordinary and moving reaction to her death.”

Clearly hoping to close the gap that had opened between her family and the public, she said Diana’s funeral would be “a chance to show to the whole world the British nation united in grief and respect.”

Farrell: Diana’s most lasting legacy will be her influence on her children, specifically Prince William. She ensured that he experienced a life outside the confines of Buckingham Palace and the other royal homes. She made sure that he met ordinary people, saw poverty and need. And she gave him an early example of how campaigning for causes such as land mines and H.I.V./AIDS awareness can raise the profile of such causes. That is an example that both her sons seem to have taken up with enthusiasm — Prince Harry’s work on raising awareness about mental health, for instance.


©2017 The New York Times News Service

First Published: Fri, September 01 2017. 15:43 IST
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