August 31, 1997

08.31.13

The Night Princess Diana Died

Christopher Dickey recalls his long, lonely August night in Paris in 1997—at the horrific accident scene and Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital. At dawn, the news came and mourning began.

Princess Diana died, as it happened, the night of my birthday, August 31, 1997. I hadn’t planned much of a celebration. My wife and I shared a bottle of good wine in our apartment in Paris, and went to bed. About 30 minutes later, an editor called from New York. The wires were reporting there’d been a car crash about a mile from my place: the driver and Diana’s lover of the moment, Dodi Fayed, were dead. Diana was injured, nobody was sure how badly.

Minutes later, I was at the scene among a crush of reporters behind police barricades trying to peer into the tunnel beneath the Place de l’Alma. The lights of cop cars flashed inside with that melancholy rhythm they have when the sirens are off and the action is over. We could see the big crumpled Mercedes sedan, but not very well. We still didn’t know what had happened to the princess. Over the course of the next hour or so, the press corps thinned out until, finally, to my surprise, I was alone.

I was waiting for the police to pull the car out of the tunnel, and in the meantime making calls on my big brick of a cellphone, or answering questions as best I could when American cable networks called me.

As it happened, I had contributed to a Newsweek article about Diana that was on the stands that week. Under the headline “The Flying Fayeds,” it recounted the high ambitions and unsavory connections of Dodi Fayed and his father, all of which were of new interest because Dodi and Diana had been photographed kissing during an escapade off the coast of Sardinia. People magazine had dubbed her “the poster girl for ‘Smart Princess, Dumb Choices.’” Paparazzi, inspired by the enormous sums paid for that blurry shot of the infamous embrace, were willing to do just about anything to get their own version. Several had been chasing the Mercedes when it crashed.

As I repeated that information live to CNN, my voice broke. Reporting the news of Diana’s death, I remembered my own need to grieve.

Finally a police truck emerged slowly from the tunnel with the wrecked car on the back. The top had been severed from the body of the automobile with what rescue workers call “the jaws of life” so they could get at the victims inside. The air bags were deployed and lay limp in the front seats. I could not see any blood, although I know now that there must have been a lot of it. The face of bodyguard Trevor Rees-Jones had been shredded by the windshield. It was obvious from the twisted metal that the impact had been horrific, as I told the cable news anchors calling me.

Then there was nothing more to see. So I went to the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital a couple of miles away and across the Seine. A French ambulance had taken Diana there. But reporters were not being allowed through the gates. As dawn approached, again, I found myself in sparse company. And then, suddenly, we were told we could enter. I climbed over the police barriers and went inside.

It was, for me, a strange sensation. I had only ever been to that hospital once before, and not for medical reasons. About eight months earlier, I’d gone to see an installation of Bill Viola’s video art in the ruins of an old church on the hospital grounds. In ultra-slow motion on enormous screens, men sank and rose from water, or were consumed by flame. I had called my father afterward to talk about it with him. He was dying, and we had been estranged for a long time, and these conversations about art and poetry were one of the ways we tried to reconnect. A few weeks after that, he passed away.

Now I was waiting for word of another death, albeit of someone I had never met.

The British ambassador and the French interior minister and other dignitaries had assembled to address the press in those dark minutes just before sunrise. But first they asked the doctor who had treated Diana to explain what steps he had taken to save her. For some reason there was no microphone. The doctor spoke softly. Three or four of us huddled around him, almost a scrum, hanging on his every word. He said she had massive internal bleeding. He said surgeons had opened her chest. He said they had massaged her heart. He said he and his team had done everything they could, but at four in the morning they had pronounced her dead.

As I repeated that information live to CNN, my voice broke. Reporting the news of Diana’s death, I remembered my own need to grieve. In the days that followed, I think millions of people shared that experience in various ways: the world seemed to pause to mourn Diana, and in that moment people allowed themselves to mourn for many others they had loved and lost.

For months after that, because mine had been the voice of Diana’s death broadcast around the world, I was assigned full time to follow the story of what happened that night and the subsequent investigation. It was clear there had been many bad decisions, one after another, and there had been no conspiracy,  but Dodi’s father, Mohamed al-Fayed, spent a fortune trying to keep alive the notion that the British royals had mounted a plot to kill the princess and his son. It all came to seem terribly tawdry.

Eventually I got to see the voluminous police dossier on the case, including the photographs taken at the scene by the paparazzi. Dodi, I remember, looked like a mangled marionette, his limbs twisted in impossible positions. But Diana merely looked stunned. She was seated in the well of the car behind the front seat, her legs drawn up slightly. Her eyes seemed vacant, but she looked very much alive. Only when she was taken out of the car and stretched out in the ambulance did the tear in a vein near her heart open wide.

In that same picture, in a pouch in the back of the front seat, there is a magazine: a copy of Newsweek.  Maybe it was the same one with the article on “The Flying Fayeds.” I don’t know. Just another odd and painful coincidence. One of so many that night.