It was stunning news followed by an announcement that was even more shocking. It began ten years ago on August 31, 1997, with the revelation that Princess Diana had been involved in an auto accident in a Paris tunnel. At first it wasn’t clear how serious the incident had been and many hoped it would be quickly resolved with just minor injuries. But not long after, the world learned the terrible truth – Princess Diana, mother of the future King of England, had been killed in that crash, along with her boyfriend, Harrod’s heir Dodi al-Fayed and her chauffeur.
Diana had just left a local hotel in her Mercedes with the paparazzi in hot pursuit on motorcycles, following her every move after her highly publicized break-up with Prince Charles. It appeared that her driver was trying to escape their ever-prying eyes, when he suddenly lost control and the car veered into a pillar and then hit a wall at high speed. al-Fayed and the chauffeur were killed instantly. Diana survived the impact, but was trapped in the tangled wreckage and crews lost precious time cutting her out of it.
She was rushed to hospital where doctors worked on her for two hours. But her injuries were too great and she died in the operating room. Only her bodyguard lived to tell the tale of what happened that night – but he would later claim his memories of the incident were gone.
It was late night in Europe when the accident took place and many Brits woke to the shocking news. Buckingham Palace issued a statement saying the Queen and Prince Charles were “deeply shocked and distressed” at the tragedy, but criticism would be leveled at the reigning monarch over her reserve in the midst of the tragedy. She would later issue a rare public address trying to counteract that impression.
Diana’s sons, Princes William and Harry, learned of the unthinkable tragedy at Balmoral Castle in Scotland, where the royal family was spending the summer. Both were said to be inconsolable and devastated and both have since worked tirelessly to keep her name and good works alive.
The reaction from the public was also remarkable, with thousands leaving cards, candles, flowers and tributes to the woman who would become known as “The People’s Princess.” At least a million gathered on the streets as the late royal’s funeral cortege slowly wheeled its way to Westminster Abbey. Even more watched the solemn ceremony around the world on TV. The tributes were highlighted by Elton John’s re-working of his hit “Candle in the Wind.” The song would go on to become the biggest selling single in music history.
After the shock had worn off, the questions began, with fingers pointing straight at the relentless photographers, who many blamed for initiating the chase. Conspiracy theories would also abound, with some claiming it was a well craft plot by either the royal family or the British government, worried that Diana was pregnant with al-Fayed’s child and would marry a foreigner, causing a major scandal for the monarchy.
Pressed by Dodi’s father, an inquiry was held and an 832-page report issued. It concluded there was no baby in waiting, no conspiracy and while the members of the press certainly were a factor in the tragedy, the accident was just – a terrible mishap. There was also evidence that Diana’s driver had been drinking before he tried to avoid his pursuers, and was above the legal limit when he got behind the wheel.
Other conclusions: there was no plot to kill Diana, there was no evidence the car had been tampered with and the royal family had no complicity in the incident. Despite the extensive review, many still weren’t satisfied that they knew what really happened that night.
To see our original coverage of this story from August 31, 1997, click the video links above.
Photo credit: Pierre Boussel/AFP/Getty Images
Timeline of events
Sept. 1, 1997: Blood samples taken from chauffeur Henri Paul indicate he was drunk at the time of the accident.
Sept. 2, 1997: French prosecutors open an official investigation into the crash; seven paparazzi named as manslaughter suspects.
Sept. 6, 1997: Diana’s funeral is held at Westminster Abbey.
Sept. 19, 1997: Bodyguard Trevor Rees-Jones, the crash’s only survivor, says he cannot remember what happened.
Feb. 11, 1998: Crash victim Dodi Fayed’s father, Mohammed al Fayed, tells a British tabloid he believes the crash was part of a plot.
Feb. 6, 1999: A U.S. judge rejects al Fayed’s request for classified government documents.
Sept. 3, 1999: French Judge Herve Stephan publishes his report after a two-year investigation, saying Paul was under the influence of drugs. The photographers who were chasing the couple’s car are cleared of manslaughter charges.
April 4, 2002: France’s highest court upholds the dismissal of manslaughter charges against the photographers and motorcyclist.
Dec. 18, 2003: Royal coroner Michael Burgess announces an inquest into the deaths of Diana and Dodi Fayed.
Jan. 6, 2004: Both inquests are opened. Burgess asks John Stevens, then Metropolitan Police Commissioner, to direct an inquiry into their deaths.
July 6, 2004: The Diana memorial fountain is dedicated by the Queen in Hyde Park.
Aug. 12, 2004: A French court reopens a probe into the alleged falsification of alcohol and drug tests on Paul.
July 28, 2005: The wrecked Mercedes in which Diana died is brought to Britain for forensic tests.
Dec. 11, 2005: Prince Charles is interviewed by Stevens.
Jan. 27, 2006: Stevens says in an interview that the inquiry into Diana’s death was “far more complex” than he expected.
July 22, 2006: Burgess quits the inquests, blaming a “heavy and constant” workload.
Sept. 1, 2006: Former British judge Baroness Butler-Sloss takes over the inquests.
Dec. 14, 2006: Stevens publishes his findings, dismissing conspiracy theories. Al Fayed rejects the findings.
Jan. 8, 2007: Preliminary hearings for the inquests begin to decide if there will be a jury and joint or separate inquests.
Jan. 15, 2007: Butler-Sloss rules that she will not call a jury.
March 2, 2007: High Court overturns Butler-Sloss’s ruling. A jury will be called.
April 24, 2007: Butler-Sloss quits as coroner, saying she lacks the experience to deal with an inquest jury.
June 13, 2007: New coroner Justice Scott Baker sits for the first time after replacing Butler-Sloss, he pledges a quick and open inquest.
July 9, 2007: Baker refuses to include the Queen and her husband, Prince Philip, as potential witnesses.