Princess Diana’s Death: The Details of Her Tragic Accident

Princess Diana's tragic death cemented her place as the People's Princess in the hearts and minds of millions. Find out about the tragic circumstances surrounding Princess Diana's car accident.

As hard as it may be to imagine, nearly a quarter-century has passed since Princess Diana‘s death at age 36 following a high-speed car chase through the streets of Paris—prompted by the paparazzi’s relentless pursuit. That the former wife of Prince Charles was being chased by photographers was nothing new, of course. From the moment the former Lady Diana Spencer stepped onto the public stage in early 1981, upon her engagement to Prince Charles, the public and the media indulged in an obsession with the willowy ingenue.

That obsession proved to be a double-edged sword for the former kindergarten teacher. On the one hand, Diana’s iconic status provided a platform for the deeply committed humanitarian. On the other, it turned the former wife of the future king of England into tabloid gold. “When I think about my mom, the first thing that comes to mind is always the same one over and over again: Strapped in the car, seatbelt across, with my brother in the car as well, and my mother driving being chased by three, four, five mopeds, with paparazzi on, and then she was always unable to drive because of the tears. There was no protection,” her younger son Prince Harry said in The Me You Can’t See. This scene happened “every single day until the day that she died,” he went on to say.

Had Princess Diana lived, in addition to being the mother of two handsome, articulate, and philanthropic princes, one of whom is the next in line to the crown, she would also be the grandmother of five. Gone for 24 years, she’s nevertheless as alive in the hearts and minds of the global public as she ever was.

A multi-colored sea of floral tributes to Diana, Princess of Wales, lie outside the gates of her London home. The flowers began to arrive soon after news of Diana's death, in a Paris car crash, reached Britain.Liba Taylor/Getty Images

Princess Diana’s fatal car crash stunned the world

On August 30, 1997, the world was going about its late-summer business. For those of us who were at the supermarket that day to stock up on supplies for our Labor Day parties, that may well have included a passing glance while in the checkout line at TIME‘s coverage of “The Death of Privacy” or People’s cover story, “A Guy For Di,” which promised the latest on Princess Diana’s burgeoning relationship with Dodi Al Fayed. For Princess Diana, who had just recently parted ways with the man who may have been the love of her life, Hasnat Khan, it involved waking up on Fayed’s yacht and taking in the breathtaking views off the Emerald Coast in Sardinia. And, according to Daily Mail reporter Richard Kay, it also involved a phone call to Kay, during which Diana declared she was just about ready to withdraw from public life.

In the late morning, Diana and Fayed departed the yacht for Paris, where Diana relaxed in the couple’s hotel room at The Ritz (which was owned by Fayed’s father, Mohamed Al Fayed) and spoke to her children, who were with their father and grandmother Queen Elizabeth at Balmoral Castle in Scotland. Meanwhile, Fayed picked up a ring he had purchased one week earlier with the intention of proposing to Diana that night at his apartment. Those plans went horribly awry, however, when the couple’s plans to enjoy a quiet dinner at The Ritz turned into a media circus. In an attempt to give the paparazzi the slip, the couple sent decoys to the front of the hotel while ducking out the back and into a car driven by hotel security officer, Henri Paul.

The photographers quickly sussed out the truth, however, and gave chase via motorcycle; Paul responded by speeding through the streets of Paris and ultimately crashing inside the Pont de l’Alma tunnel. Fayed and Paul died at the scene. Diana, who was rushed to Pitie-Salpetriere Hospital, died at 4 a.m. on August 31. Her death was announced soon after, devastating millions of loyal and unsuspecting fans of the People’s Princess. Those Americans who had been sleeping at the moment then-MSNBC anchor Brian Williams first uttered the now-famous words, “Princess Diana has died,” awoke to the incomprehensible news that morning.

These were Princess Diana’s last words

In the nearly 24 years since Princess Diana’s death at age 36 stunned the world, the details of the crash and the events surrounding it, have emerged slowly—in fits and starts and often tainted by controversy. After all, the only survivor of the crash was Princess Diana’s bodyguard, Trevor Rees-Jones, whose injuries were so severe and whose experience was so understandably traumatic that he remembers very little. Among the few things that Rees has said he remembers, according to one report, is hearing Diana calling out for “Dodi.”

French firefighter Xavier Gourmelon, who was among the first official responders at the accident scene told The Sun in 2017 that he heard Diana, whom he did not even realize at the time was Princess Diana, saying, “My God, what’s happened”—just before going into cardiac arrest, while Gourmelon administered CPR. Those may well have been Princess Diana’s last words. However, accounts of the accident in which Diana was said to be shouting, “Oh my God, leave me alone” or repeatedly crying out in pain (as a doctor by the name of Frédéric Maillez who was on hand before the ambulance arrived, having driven by the accident claimed), persist to this day.

Princess Diana with her sons, Prince William and Prince Harry, in May of 1995Laurent SOLA/Getty Images

How old was Princess Diana when she died?

At the time of Princess Diana’s death, the mother of then-15-year-old Prince William and then-12-year-old Prince Harry was just 36 years old. For anyone who may have outlived her, it can be challenging to reconcile that her life was so brief, considering the lasting positive impact she had and continues to have on this world.

What caused Princess Diana’s death?

Shortly after midnight on August 31, 1997, a speeding car carrying Princess Diana, Fayed, and Rees-Jones, which was driven by Paul, entered the Pont de l’Alma Tunnel near the Eiffel Tower in central Paris, only to collide with a concrete post along the tunnel’s center divider and smash into the tunnel’s right side. The impact crushed the car and all of its inhabitants, leaving Fayed and Paul dead at the scene. Diana had to be extracted from the car with an electric chainsaw. She was tended to first by Dr. Maillez, and then by first responders who arrived by ambulance, including firefighter Gourmelon, who may have heard Princess Diana’s last words.

The first medical reports indicated that Princess Diana was suffering from a concussion, a broken arm, and cuts to her thighs. It later emerged that the Princess was also bleeding profusely from massive chest injuries. Having gone into cardiac arrest but revived at the scene, Diana was then rushed to La Pitie-Salpetriere in southwestern Paris, where doctors operated and then applied heart massage for two hours. Princess Diana never regained consciousness and died at 4 a.m. on August 31, 1997, according to the doctors who gave a statement in the immediate wake of the incident.

While the direct cause of Princess Diana’s death was, of course, the injuries she suffered as a result of the accident, it could be said also that several other “proximate causes” came into play. “Proximate cause” is a legal concept that applies when something would never have happened “but for” something else. In fact, the jury at the inquest into Princess Diana’s death determined that the deaths of Diana and of Fayed were caused by Paul’s “grossly negligent driving,” which included speeding and driving while under the influence of alcohol, and by the reckless behavior of the “posse of paparazzi photographers who were dogging their final journey.”

How paparazzi laws have changed since Princess Diana’s death

One positive thing to have come out of the tragedy of Princess Diana’s death is that it has fueled legal and other reform aimed at preventing another tragedy such as this from happening. For example, just eight days after the crash, the Daily Mail pledged to ban paparazzi photos from its pages. Although in the 24 years since, the Daily Mail has not consistently honored this pledge, it nevertheless set a worthy example for other media outlets. In addition, not long after the accident, the “Press Complaints Commission,” a U.K. self-regulatory body, added a “non-harassment, non-intimidation” clause to its code of conduct.

The following year, in direct response to Prince Diana’s death, California’s state legislature passed an anti-paparazzi law. The first of its kind, the law prohibited photographers from trespassing on private property, which would not have helped Diana in this case. However, in 2010, California anti-paparazzi law was amended to prohibit reckless driving in the pursuit of a photo.

Trevor Rees-Jones, former bodyguard of Princess Diana, January 2008Fiona Hanson - PA Images/Getty Images

Princess Diana’s bodyguard was the only survivor of the car accident

Something else that contributed to the deaths of Princess Diana and Dodi Al Fayed, according to the inquest jury, was their failure to have worn seatbelts. In fact, the only person who survived the accident that killed Princess Diana and two others was the bodyguard, Rees-Jones (shown above).

Rees-Jones, who had been hired by the Fayed family specifically to protect Diana while visiting Paris, may have survived the crash that killed Diana solely because he was wearing his seatbelt. Although it is outside of bodyguard protocol to buckle up, Rees-Jones made the decision to do so mere seconds before impact. Nevertheless, the crash put Rees-Jones in a coma for 10 days and left his face crushed beyond recognition, necessitating surgical reconstruction, as well as a broken wrist and crush injuries to his chest.

Many conspiracy theories about Princess Diana’s death persist

Many conspiracy theories about Princess Diana’s death have circulated over the years, including one put forth by Fayed’s father, Mohamed, who has maintained that the couple was murdered in a criminal conspiracy by the British establishment, led by Queen Elizabeth’s husband Prince Philip.

Other unproven conspiracy theories include that Princess Diana had to be eliminated so that Prince Charles could remarry; that Princess Diana was pregnant with Dodi’s child at the time of her death, which, if true, would have caused great discomfort for the royal family; that the driver of the car that crashed in the Paris tunnel was actually an assassin hired by MI6, and that Diana had been murdered by the U.S. government.

None of these Princess Diana conspiracy theories have ever panned out, but they still persist for the simple reason that conspiracy theories are a coping mechanism for people searching for meaning in a seemingly irrational and often capricious world.

Prince Charles informed Queen Elizabeth about Diana’s accident

The death of Princess Diana presented serious challenges for the royal family that went beyond the intense and lingering grief on the part of those who loved her. Some go so far as to say that Princess Diana’s death came close to ending the monarchy altogether because the public was outraged over the royal family’s response—or lack thereof. As depicted in the 2006 Academy Award-winning movie The Queen, the royal family initially remained silent at Balmoral Castle in Scotland, where they had been on holiday.

It’s not that the royal family was not immediately apprised of Diana’s fate. In fact, as soon as Prince Charles received word of the crash, he woke Queen Elizabeth out of a sound sleep to inform her there had been a horrific accident and that Princess Diana’s condition was not yet known. Soon after, Prince Charles received word that Princess Diana had, in fact, died. In her book, The Queen & Di, author Ingrid Seward wrote of how The Queen watched as her son broke down emotionally. But not a word was reported of Queen Elizabeth’s immediate reaction to learning her former daughter-in-law had died.

asBuckingham Palace initially offered a statement that The Queen along with Prince Philip was “deeply shocked and distressed,” but beyond that, the royal family stayed mum for days. Finally, on September 5, after pressure from Prime Minister Tony Blair, Quee Elizabeth relented and agreed to lower the flag at Buckingham Palace at half-mast and to allow a public funeral for Princess Diana. The royal family emerged from their self-imposed exile, led by Queen Elizabeth who addressed the public from Buckingham Palace, calling Diana an “an exceptional and gifted human being,” who “never lost her capacity to smile and laugh, nor to inspire others with her warmth and kindness.”

Although it won’t likely assuage any lingering hurt feelings that British citizens may still harbor, there are those who maintain that Queen Elizabeth’s silence—and her failure to immediately return to London upon hearing the tragic news, reflected good parenting, or, more specifically, grandparenting. “What was the point of bringing the boys down to sit in London with nothing to do but sit there feeling sad about mum?” Margaret Rhodes, Queen Elizabeth’s cousin and close friend told CNN in 2012. “Personally, I think I would have behaved in the same way.”

The Prince of Wales, Prince William and Prince Harry look at floral tributes to Diana, Princess of Wales outside Kensington Palace on September 5, 1997 in London, England.Anwar Hussein/Getty Images

How Princes William and Harry found out about her death

Princes Wiliam and Harry learned of their mother’s death from the adult members of their family while at Balmoral Castle. “I was at Balmoral [Castle] when I was told my mother had died,” Prince William told the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 2021, according to a video shared by the BBC. “Still in shock, I found sanctuary in the service at Crathie Kirk that very morning. And in the dark days of grief that followed, I found comfort and solace in the Scottish outdoors. As a result, the connection I feel to Scotland will forever run deep.”

The loss of their mother was, of course, a terrible and life-changing event for both princes, but it was further complicated by the reality of their tender ages. The last time the princes spoke to their mother had been when Diana called from Paris on August 30. But as teenage and pre-teen kids are known to do, the boys rushed their mother off the phone in favor of fun with their peers.

“If I’d known now what was going to happen, I wouldn’t have been so blasé about it,” Prince William said of that last phone call with Princess Diana, in the 2017 documentary, Diana, Our Mother: Her Life and Legacy. Prince Harry expressed similar regrets in the same documentary, during which he observed, “How differently that conversation could have panned out if I’d had even the slightest inkling her life was going to be taken that night.”

Princess Diana’s funeral came to be known as “The Day the World Cried”

On September 6, 1997, Diana, Princess of Wales was laid to rest at the Spencer family estate in Althorp. Princess Diana’s funeral procession began at Kensington Palace and proceeded to Westminster Abbey, where 2,000 people were in attendance. But that, of course, was nothing compared to the number who watched on their television screens around the world, which is estimated to be 2.5 billion.

The day of Princess Diana’s funeral has since come to be known as “The Day The World Cried,” thanks to the 2017 documentary, Diana: The Day the World Cried. “It was a day when the world was brought to a standstill to mourn the ‘People’s Princess’,” according to CineFlix, one of the distributors of the film. And it was, of course, the day people all over the world stopped what they were doing to shed tears of sorrow over the loss of this beloved woman whom the world had watched grow from a shy teenager into a mother and a humanitarian who died far too young with so much more to offer the world.

Diana’s memory and spirit live on

The death of Diana, Princess of Wales left an immense void in the world, especially for her boys who grew into adulthood deprived of her love and the grandchildren who will never know her personally. However, Princess Diana also left behind an enormous legacy with the humanitarian work she completed in her lifetime, including her efforts to change the way the world sees HIV and AIDS, her compassionate visits to the sick and the homeless, and her avid support of the arts. In total, she was a patron to over 100 charities over the course of her life.

Diana also played an enormous role in changing the image of the British monarchy, revitalizing it during her life and changing it forever in death, according to British Heritage, which pointed out that “her legacy lives on in everything from the Windsor’s more accessible approach to the public to William and Harry’s charity work to virtually everything Kate does. Nearly 20 years after her death, ‘The Diana Effect’ is alive and well—and a guiding principle for today’s modern British monarchy.”

And, of course, there is the legacy that she left behind in the form of William and Harry, her beloved boys, both of whom have gone on, in addition to carrying on their mother’s charitable efforts, to marry strong women who are likewise committed to leveraging their wealth and celebrity to make the world a better place. To mark the occasion of what would have been Princess Diana’s 60th birthday, a statue in her likeness is set to be unveiled in Kensington Palace’s gardens on July 1, 2021. The statue, by artist Ian Rank-Broadley (whose portrait of Queen Elizabeth II appears on all U.K. coins), was commissioned by Prince William and Prince Harry in the hopes that it would encourage visitors to reflect on their mother’s life and legacy.

“Our mother touched so many lives,” the princes said when plans for the statue were announced in 2017 on the 20th anniversary of her death.

Sources:

  • Daily Mail: The Diana I Knew
  • The Telegraph: “Bodyguard: All I remember is Diana’s Voice”
  • CNN: How Diana’s death turned the queen into “proper granny”
  • BBC: Prince William found ‘solace’ in Scotland after mother’s death

Lauren Cahn
Lauren Cahn is a New York-based writer whose work has appeared regularly on Reader's Digest, The Huffington Post, and a variety of other publications since 2008. She covers life and style, popular culture, law, religion, health, fitness, yoga, entertaining and entertainment. Lauren is also an author of crime fiction; her first full-length manuscript, The Trust Game, was short-listed for the 2017 CLUE Award for emerging talent in the genre of suspense fiction.