Princess Diana Dies in a Car Crash

The death of Diana, princess of Wales, in a car crash in Paris led to international mourning, controversy, and scandal. The British royal family, especially Queen Elizabeth II, was severely criticized for its seemingly cold response to Diana’s death. The crash also raised several questions, including the following: What circumstances placed Diana in the car with Dodi al-Fayed, the son of an Egyptian billionaire? Was the driver of Diana’s and Fayed’s car drunk? Was Diana’s death an assassination? Did a cover-up hamper later investigations of the accident? What role did the paparazzi play in the crash?

Summary of Event

Diana, the princess of Wales, was an extremely popular international figure, beloved around the world for her philanthropy, and for her beauty. Many believe that she was the world’s most photographed woman. This public fascination often put her at odds with the British royal family, which tried to observe royal protocol and procedures when in public, and with the press and paparazzi, who followed her incessantly. [kw]Diana Dies in a Car Crash, Princess (Aug. 31, 1997)
Diana, Princess of Wales
Fayed, Dodi al-
Paparazzi;and Princess Diana[Diana]
Diana, Princess of Wales
Fayed, Dodi al-
Paparazzi;and Princess Diana[Diana]
[g]Europe;Aug. 31, 1997: Princess Diana Dies in a Car Crash[02830]
[g]Middle East;Aug. 31, 1997: Princess Diana Dies in a Car Crash[02830]
[g]France;Aug. 31, 1997: Princess Diana Dies in a Car Crash[02830]
[g]England;Aug. 31, 1997: Princess Diana Dies in a Car Crash[02830]
[g]Egypt;Aug. 31, 1997: Princess Diana Dies in a Car Crash[02830]
[c]Communications and media;Aug. 31, 1997: Princess Diana Dies in a Car Crash[02830]
[c]Law and the courts;Aug. 31, 1997: Princess Diana Dies in a Car Crash[02830]
[c]Publishing and journalism;Aug. 31, 1997: Princess Diana Dies in a Car Crash[02830]
[c]Royalty;Aug. 31, 1997: Princess Diana Dies in a Car Crash[02830]
Paul, Henri
Rees-Jones, Trevor
Fayed, Mohamed al-
Baker, Scott

Diana and her husband, Charles, prince of Wales, had divorced in 1996. The media followed Diana everywhere after the divorce. Being a humanitarian, she often was in the public spotlight, working on issues such as HIV-AIDS and unexploded land mines. The media was following her as well when she died in a car crash in Paris on August 31, 1997. The accident fueled a number of conspiracy theories, as many unusual circumstances and facts in the case remain unclear and unresolved.

In mid-1997, Diana was romantically linked to Dodi al-Fayed, who also died in the Paris crash. They had been seen together in public a number of times, and they even bought a ring together in Paris on the afternoon before the crash. Their relationship fueled rumors that they would become engaged the following day, September 1. Another rumor, later proven untrue, was that Diana was pregnant at the time of the crash and that Fayed was the father. Paparazzi Paparazzi followed Diana and Fayed everywhere, and reportedly harassed them to get photos of the famous couple.

Fayed’s father, Mohamed al-Fayed, owned the Ritz Hotel in Place Vendôme Paris, where Diana and Fayed had stopped after having spent nine days on the elder Fayed’s yacht. The Fayed family also owned an apartment on rue Arsène Houssaye, which is located near the Ritz Hotel and close to the Champs-élysées. Diana and Fayed were planning to return to the apartment from the hotel. Henri Paul, the acting head of security for the hotel, was concerned about the number of paparazzi in front of the hotel, waiting for the couple to emerge. To elude the media, Paul planned for a decoy vehicle to leave from the front of the hotel. Diana and Fayed would leave the hotel from the rear entrance, with Paul serving as the chauffeur for their car, a Mercedes-Benz S280. Evidence would later show that Paul had been drinking alcohol at the hotel before the crash.

Diana, Fayed, Paul, and Trevor Rees-Jones, Fayed’s bodyguard, departed the Ritz Hotel at 12:20 a.m. Fayed and Diana were seated in the rear of the Mercedes, while Paul and Rees-Jones were seated in the front. Upon leaving the hotel, Paul drove to an embankment road that runs beside the Seine River to enter the Pont d’Alma tunnel. The posted speed limit for the tunnel was 50 kph (31 mph). The Mercedes then entered the tunnel about 12:23 a.m., at high speed. Paul lost control of the vehicle, causing it to veer left and strike the thirteenth pillar, which was not protected by a metal rail guard. The car was traveling at an estimated speed of about 118 kph (73 mph) before it struck the pillar.

Officials at the scene of the car crash that killed Princess Diana and two others in Paris on August 31, 1997.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Fayed and Paul died at the scene of the crash. Diana was critically injured but conscious. Photographers, who had followed the Mercedes into the underpass, were looming over the destroyed car. Pictures taken at the scene remain controversial, especially because Diana was alive after the crash. One of the photographers tried to help her out of the car but was unable to remove her. She reportedly uttered the words “oh my God” and later said “leave me alone” to the paparazzi when the emergency crew arrived at 12:32 a.m. A number of paparazzi were arrested when the police arrived; some of the photographers had been standing on the car taking pictures. Rees-Jones also was conscious and had suffered numerous facial wounds. He was the only survivor of the crash.

Diana was taken away from the scene by ambulance. To administer emergency treatment, the ambulance stopped for about one hour, only a few hundred meters from the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris. The emergency vehicle did not arrive at the hospital until 2:06 a.m., with the princess still alive. She died two hours later from fatal heart and lung injuries.

Conspiracy theories emerged quickly after the death of Princess Diana. Investigations into the driver’s background showed that he had many bank accounts and had quietly accumulated extensive savings. He also was deemed negligent for driving drunk—his blood alcohol level was three times the legal limit—and he was speeding. Other theories alleged that Diana and Fayed were targeted for assassination because the British royal family did not want Fayed, a Muslim, to marry Diana. Even Fayed’s father alleged that the husband of Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Philip, orchestrated his son’s murder. Others contend that the British secret services and intelligence had Diana murdered to protect the royal family. Still others believe that Fayed was the target because his father had crossed others in failed business deals. All of these theories, along with many others, have been dismissed through subsequent investigations. Although conspiracy theories continue to surround the crash, none yet have been supported by the facts of the case.

A number of detailed investigations, the first of which was conducted by French authorities, determined that the crash was an accident. A second investigation was initiated in 2004 by the coroner of the queen’s household, Michael Burgess. The inquest was continued by London’s Metropolitan Police and headed by Commissioner Lord Stevens, who looked into several conspiracy theories about the crash. London police published the results of its investigation as the Paget Report on December 14, 2006. The report said there was no evidence of a conspiracy.

It is clear, however, that driver Paul had an excessive amount of alcohol in his system and was speeding at the time of the crash. Furthermore, investigations determined that none of the passengers in the car were wearing seatbelts when the Mercedes hit the pillar. According to investigation documents, all could have survived the crash had they been wearing their seatbelts.

Another inquest began on January 8, 2007, with discovery and continued in London’s High Court on October 2. It was led by Coroner Scott Baker. On April 7, 2008, the inquest jury returned its verdict: Princess Diana and Fayed were “unlawfully killed” due to the gross negligence—and drunk driving—of driver Paul as well as the actions of the paparazzi. The jury of six women and five men also confirmed that the failure of Diana, Fayed, and Paul to wear seatbelts contributed to their deaths.


Princess Diana’s death had immediate significance. Millions around the world mourned her death, watched her funeral on television, and witnessed an outpouring of donations. Bouquets of flowers by the hundreds of thousands were placed in front of Kensington Palace, Diana’s home in London. Tens of thousands more bouquets were taken to her family’s estate in Althorp.

The coffin bearing the body of Princess Diana is taken into Westminster Abbey in London for funeral services. Standing watch are, from left and with backs turned, Prince Charles, Prince Harry, Earl Charles Spencer, Prince William, and Prince Philip.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

The public clamored for Queen Elizabeth to comment on the loss of Diana, but the royal response was not fast enough. Many believed the queen was not expressing compassion. Elizabeth finally spoke about Diana on September 5, when she expressed the nation’s shock at the loss and gave her personal tribute to the princess. The public mourning continued at her funeral on September 6, when an estimated crowd of more than three million gathered in the area around Westminster Abbey, and hundreds of millions of people around the world watched the funeral on television.

Princess Diana touched people near and far with her personal charm and humanitarianism. Many of her efforts continue through the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund, which was initially started with money left by mourners at Kensington Palace and other locations. Diana’s sons, Princes William and Harry, have assisted in this memorial effort, and they sponsored a concert on July 1, 2007, to mark the tenth anniversary of Diana’s death. Some of the funds raised went to the memorial fund. Egypt
Diana, Princess of Wales
Fayed, Dodi al-
Paparazzi;and Princess Diana[Diana]

Further Reading

  • Andersen, Christopher. After Diana: William, Harry, Charles, and the Royal House of Windsor. New York: Hyperion, 2007. Provides details on the Scotland Yard-Metropolitan Police probe called Operation Paget, which investigated Diana’s death in Paris.
  • Botham, Noel. The Murder of Princess Diana. London: Metro Books, 2007. Written by an investigative reporter who believes that Diana was murdered by a hit squad. Examines circumstances that were covered up during the investigations.
  • Brown, Tina. The Diana Chronicles. New York: Doubleday, 2007. This book reveals the complex life and personality of Diana and includes a chapter on the tunnel crash in Paris.
  • Davies, Nicholas. Diana: The Killing of a Princess. Brighton, England: Pen Press, 2006. Provides interesting questions about circumstances before Diana’s death that may have contributed to her demise.
  • King, Jon, and John Beveridge. Princess Diana: The Hidden Evidence. New York: S. P. I. Books, 2001. Examines the surveillance of Diana by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and British secret service. Claims the two security agencies were involved in her murder. Discusses other suspicious circumstances surrounding her death.
  • Levine, Michael. The Princess and the Package. Los Angeles: Renaissance Books, 1998. Explores the love-hate relationship that existed between Princess Diana and the media, primarily the paparazzi.
  • Rees-Jones, Trevor, with Moira Johnston. The Bodyguard’s Story: Diana, the Crash, and the Sole Survivor. New York: Warner Books, 2000. A detailed account of the night of the crash by the only survivor of the accident, Fayed’s bodyguard, Trevor Rees-Jones.

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