Here we go again. Scotland Yard has revived the old phantoms of conspiracy with the announcement that it is looking into new claims that Lady Diana and her lover, Dodi Fayed, were victims of an assassination. According to a new book by Alan Power, The Princess Diana Conspiracy, the latest allegations of murder most foul spring from the trial of one Sgt. Danny Nightingale, an SAS sniper convicted of possessing illegal weapons. The estranged parents-in-law of a witness against Nightingale, “Soldier N,” claimed he had told his wife that an SAS unit called The Increment had contrived to make Diana’s chauffeur crash into the 13th pillar of Paris’s Pont de l’Alma Tunnel on August 31, 1997, by disguising a secret service agent as a paparazzo to shine a strobe light into the driver’s eyes.
This is old potatoes indeed, but Scotland Yard is taking it seriously enough to announce an investigation. And perhaps the most interesting aspect is that this time the allegations have not come from Dodi’s crazed, vengeful father, Mohamed Al Fayed, who spent 11 years accusing Prince Philip of ordering up the hit team to assassinate Diana to stop her from marrying a Muslim (by whom, he claimed, she was pregnant).
At one time in the frantic aftermath of the tragedy, there were not just thousands of feverish stories of high-level plots to cause Diana’s car to crash but 35,000 conspiracy sites, factories of fantasy. They were all blown out by the first of the French inquiries and then by the exhaustive official inquest in London in 2008.
I entered this alternate universe when I was researching my book The Diana Chronicles. I was most convinced by the three-year investigation rigorously conducted by Lord Stevens, former chief of the Metropolitan Police (Scotland Yard) who reconstructed just what happened in the tunnel using 3-D lasers and computer models. They showed the chauffeur, Henri Paul, had lost control before he entered the tunnel at 75 miles an hour. The flash before the crash testimony was the invention of a pathological liar with a criminal record named François (Levistre) Levi.
There was incontrovertible toxicological evidence that Henri Paul was both drunk and on medication. His condition was deceptive. He did not appear drunk in any obvious weaving, slurring way. If he had been, any number of people would have stopped him from getting into the Mercedes as the last-minute recruit to drive Diana and Dodi. He appeared normal to most (though not all) of those who saw him that night, but the truth was that he had combined his drinks with pharmaceuticals—Prozac and Tiapride—whose labels carry warnings that taking them with alcohol can make driving or operating machinery dangerous.
Royal drivers are expressly required to avoid alcohol for 10 hours before getting behind the wheel. Yet Henri Paul’s blood-alcohol reading showed that he must have been drinking even before he was unexpectedly recalled to stand by at the Ritz at 10 o’clock. He joined the bodyguards at the hotel bar and had a couple of glasses of what looked like fruit juice, and he made a joke about it being ananas, or pineapple. But the “yellow liquid” was actually a Ricard pastis, the anise-flavored aperitif, which is considerably stronger than wine. Robert Forrest, professor of forensic toxicology at the University of Sheffield, testified for the Stevens inquiry that before those two drinks Paul may have had “something of the order of four to six extra 5c Ricards” between 7 p.m., when he officially went off duty, and his recall at 10 p.m. He was in no state to go hurtling at breakneck speed into a tunnel that had been the scene of 34 crashes and eight deaths in the previous 15 years. “I have never seen anyone take off like that,” one of the photographers told a German TV station of Henri Paul’s departure from the Ritz. “He was driving like a gangster.”
The most valid of Al Fayed’s questions, now surfacing again in Power’s book, were about the mysterious white Fiat Uno seen in the tunnel with a muzzled dog in the back, on which a subgenre of conspiracy theories has been built. The Fiat, gaining access from a slip road, was on Henri Paul’s right as he careened into the tunnel at a speed in excess of 75 miles an hour. Paul was already on a doomed trajectory, having encountered the notorious dip and slight bend in the road at this point. He swerved to the left to avoid the Fiat, brushed its left rear light, scraped the third column, swerved to the right and back again into the 13th pillar. The Fiat had by then driven on. It vanished. French police eventually interviewed Le Van Thanh, a Vietnamese plumber and night watchman whom they thought might be the Fiat’s owner, but it took the detective work of Scotland Yard in 2006 to conclude that the French had indeed got their man—and he was not a conspirator. Thanh’s failure to own up and the swift repainting of his car in red were not for any sinister reason. He was simply an immigrant afraid of getting entangled in French law, which punishes a driver who fails to stop at the scene of an accident. The Fiat was a complication for Henri Paul but only because he was driving too fast, the Mercedes already locked in its fatal momentum.
The most tenacious of Mohamed Al Fayed’s assertions, recycled again by Power, was that Diana was pregnant. The original medical evidence was conclusive: she was not. The photograph Al Fayed said showed a suggestive swelling was taken before she met Dodi. As for sinister forces organizing the crash of the Mercedes, a conspiracy would have been beyond the capacities of all the intelligence agencies and royal masterminds in the grassy knoll of tabloid imagination: pre-knowledge that Dodi would make the last-minute decisions he did; that Henri Paul would be the driver; that Paul would be drunk and drugged; that he would not follow the most obvious route to Dodi’s apartment; that the argumentative group of paparazzi and the supposed intervening cars or motorbikes were coordinated to the last split second in their movements; that Dodi and Diana would not wear seat belts—and on and on through an infinity of variables.
The new allegations get traction today perhaps because it is still hard to believe that fate alone could have been so cruel to a beautiful young mother of two beloved princes. The scene in the ghastly fluorescent-lit tunnel 16 years ago this week was one of such hell it will never cease to haunt us.
After its collision, the luxury Mercedes that drove Diana from the Ritz was a bundle of twisted metal facing the direction it had come from. Gray smoke from its engine mingled with petrol fumes and a metallic smell of burning. Its horn blared ceaselessly, jammed by the dead body of the driver, Henri Paul, pinioned on the steering column by the impact. There was the “pin-pon” sound of sirens as police and fire brigades converged.
Romuald Rat, the aptly named paparazzo who was first on the scene of the crash, found Diana crumpled on the floor of the wreck, doubled up with her head wedged between the two front seats and facing the back. Her jewelry—a bracelet with six rows of pearls, a gold watch decorated with white stones—was scattered. Diana was still breathing and apparently unmarked, her body covered by a floor mat. Dodi Fayed was mangled, obviously dead, his jeans ripped apart. Rat lifted the mat and used it to cover Dodi’s exposed genitals.
The police cleared all the roads for the ambulance’s 3.8-mile journey to the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital, situated on the Left Bank beyond the cathedral of Notre-Dame and next to the Gare d’Austerlitz. This time the motorcycle outriders who accompanied Diana were her guardians, not her aggressors.
Beyond the great, wrought-iron gates Diana was lifted out by two stretcher-bearers, with the help of the French minister of the Interior, Jean-Pierre Chevènement, and his aide Sami Nair.
As she was carried into the Pavillon Cordier, housing the Accident and Emergency Department, Nair gazed down at Diana for the first time. “She had a breathing apparatus on her face and swellings on her eyes, but she still looked beautiful,” he said later. “Her face was extremely lovely, very fresh, very serene, very young. It was very moving. She had this blond hair which made her look Raphaelesque, and the minister said to me, ‘She’s beautiful, isn’t she? She’s beautiful.’” So beautiful that like JFK theories about her senseless untimely death will never end.
Portions were adapted from The Diana Chronicles by Tina Brown Copyright © 2007 by Tina Brown. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.