‘A tragic night’: Princess Diana’s fatal Paris crash, 25 years on

·6-min read
© Jacques Brinon, Associated Press

Diana Spencer, princess of Wales, died in a car crash at the entrance to the Pont de l’Alma tunnel in Paris on August 31, 1997. Her life and death have had a lasting impact on the British royal family and the world. Frederic Mailliez, the first medic on the scene, recounts what happened that fateful night and admits he still “feels a little responsible for her last moments”.

Diana Spencer, the princess of Wales, and her partner, Egyptian film producer Dodi Fayed, left the Ritz Hotel in Paris en route to Fayed’s apartment on Rue Arsène Houssaye a little after midnight on August 31, 1997.

The car’s other two occupants were driver Henri Paul, who was the Ritz’s deputy head of security, and Trevor Rees-Jones, a member of the Fayed family’s personal protection team.

After crossing Place de la Concorde, the car entered the Pont de l’Alma tunnel at 12:23am, when Paul lost control of the vehicle and crashed into a pillar.

First medic on the scene

Doctor Frederic Mailliez, the first medic on the scene, is still marked by what happened on that fateful night 25 years ago – and the realisation that he was one of the last people to see Princess Diana alive.

“I realise my name will always be attached to this tragic night,” Mailliez, who was off-duty and on his way home from a party when he came across the car crash, told The Associated Press. “I feel a little bit responsible for her last moments.”

Mailliez was driving into the tunnel when he spotted a smoking Mercedes limousine nearly split in two. “I walked toward the wreckage. I opened the door, and I looked inside,” he said.

He describes what he saw: “Four people, two of them were apparently dead, no reaction, no breathing. And the two others, on the right side, were living but in severe condition. The front passenger was screaming – he was breathing, he could wait a few minutes. And the female passenger, the young lady, was on her knees on the floor of the Mercedes. She had her head down, she had difficulty to breathe. She needed quick assistance.”

He ran to his car to call emergency services and grab a breathing bag, a balloon-like device that helps someone breathe. “She was unconscious,” he said. “Thanks to my respiratory bag (...) she regained a little bit more energy, but she couldn’t say anything.”

“I know it’s surprising, but I didn’t recognise Princess Diana,” he said. “I was in the car on the rear seat giving assistance. I realised she was very beautiful, but my attention was so focused on what I had to do to save her life, I didn’t have time to think, 'Who was this woman?'.”

“Someone behind me told me the victims spoke English, so I began to speak English, saying I was a doctor and I called the ambulance,” he said. “I tried to comfort her.”

As he worked, he noticed paparazzi had gathered to take pictures of the scene. But Mailliez said he had no criticisms of their actions. “They didn’t hamper me having access to the victims. ... I didn’t ask them for help, but they didn’t interfere with my job.”

Firefighters quickly came and Diana was taken to a Paris hospital at around 1:40am. She died more than an hour later, at 3am. Her companion Fayed and the driver also died.

“It was a massive shock to learn that she was Princess Diana, and that she died,” Mailliez said.

Then self-doubt set in. “Did I do everything I could to save her? Did I do correctly my job?” he asked himself. “I checked with my medical professors and I checked with police investigators,” he said. They all agreed that he had done everything he could.

But Mailliez was not the only one with questions about that night. As speculation and rumours swirled, Britain launched what turned out to be the longest-running and most expensive inquest in its history to find the truth behind Diana's death. After almost six months and listening to more than 250 witnesses, a jury found in 2008 that Diana and Fayed had been unlawfully killed by the negligent driving of Henri Paul, who had been drunk and driving at high speeds to shake off the paparazzi.

A lasting legacy

The British public was bereft at the loss of the glamorous Diana, who was known worldwide for her charitable works.

Her life and premature death remain a source of continuing public interest, as evidenced by a wealth of movies and documentaries depicting her life, including the recently released "Spencer" and "The Princess", as well as the highly acclaimed Netflix series "The Crown".

The tragic epilogue in Paris also cast a spotlight on the British royal family, whose reaction to Diana’s death at first seemed out of step with the public outpouring of grief. The queen subsequently paid tribute to Diana and addressed the "overwhelming expression of sadness" seen worldwide.

"Diana's death is this whirlwind moment, which requires the monarchy to reorient its public image, to embrace a more modern, expressive kind of celebrity image as a way of appealing to audiences," royal historian Ed Owens told AFP.

The monarchy now has a far more nimble PR operation, adept at social media and rapid-response while still able to stage grand events, like this year’s Platinum Jubilee celebrations, with aplomb.

However, recent controversies – notably revelations of Prince Andrew's links to billionaire paedophile Jeffrey Epstein, and Prince Harry and his wife Meghan Markle quitting frontline royal duties – have cast doubts on the monarchy's future.

Harry’s exit leaves “a huge hole” in the institution, said Owens, pointing to “troubled times ahead” for the monarchy. “Meghan also embodied some of the virtues that Diana had sought to project as well, in terms of emotion and being in touch ... with the lives of people in the developing world,” he added.

The emotion is still palpable at the Pont de l’Alma, where the nearby Flame of Liberty monument has become an unofficial memorial site that attracts Diana fans of all generations and nationalities. She has become an iconic figure even for those born after her death.

Francine Rose, a Dutch 16-year-old who stopped by the memorial while on a biking trip in Paris, said she discovered Diana's story through film. “Diana is an inspiration because she was evolving in a strict household – the royal family – and just wanted to be free.”

(FRANCE 24 with AP and AFP)