Headlong Dash to Flee Paparazzi Ended in Mass of Twisted MetalBy Anne Swardson and Charles Trueheart
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, September 1, 1997; Page A25
PARIS, Aug. 31—The road approaching the highway tunnel is one of the longest, straightest and most intersection-free of any in the city of Paris. From the look of the totaled Mercedes 600 in which Diana, Princess of Wales, lost her life early this morning, the driver of the car was making the most of it.
Fleeing a small flotilla of paparazzi motorcycles, scooters and autos, the car carrying Diana and her boyfriend, Dodi Fayed, traveling at a "great rate of speed," according to French authorities, careened between walls and dividing pillars and may have rolled over before killing three of its occupants, including the couple and the driver. Only a bodyguard survived, apparently saved by the front passenger air bag.
Police did not say exactly how fast the car was traveling, but it was widely reported on radio and television that its speed was on the order of 90 mph. The speed limit in the tunnel is 30. Radio reports said none of the passengers was wearing a seat belt. But even if they had been, the condition of the vehicle after the crash was hazardous to its occupants: The grille, hood and front wheels were crumpled against the passenger compartment and the roof was smashed down almost level with the body of the car.
The key question arising from this night of twisted metal, for the police who were detaining seven paparazzi to determine their role in the crash and for the public at large, was where and how close the car's pursuers were at the time of the crash. And the larger question: How could the disaster have been avoided?
From a late-night dinner in a curtained, mirrored alcove in the restaurant of the Hotel Ritz Saturday evening flowed a series of events that would end the life of a woman known the world over, and of the millionaire playboy who was Diana's first public romance following her divorce from Prince Charles a year ago.
Paris police had almost no comment today on their investigation into the car crash that killed Diana, Fayed and the driver of the car. Today the Reuter news service identified the fourth, and surviving, occupant of the car as Trevor Rees-Jones, a bodyguard, and quoted doctors as saying his injuries were not life-threatening.
The Ritz, which was reported to have supplied the driver and possibly the car, and which is owned by Fayed's father, Mohamed Fayed, has been tight-lipped as well.
Police were holding seven photographers, reportedly six Frenchmen and one Macedonian, who were taken into custody at the scene as part of a criminal investigation. They were being questioned on their role in the accident and on their behavior afterward, police said.
If any of the two motorcycles, one scooter and one or two cars driven by the photographers as they chased Diana and Fayed's car through a highway tunnel on the Right Bank are shown to have helped cause the fatal accident, the drivers could be charged with involuntary homicide, police said.
Failing to stop and help someone in distress is an offense in France. If the photographers are found to have been taking pictures of the crash immediately afterward rather than helping the victims, as some witnesses have suggested, they could be subject to fines and prison sentences. French radio reported that the police developed film from the photographers' confiscated cameras in hopes it will shed light on their actions.
The photographers were among about 30 who had congregated outside the Ritz's front entrance after the princess and her boyfriend arrived in Paris Saturday afternoon and, after a stop along the Champs-Elysees, arrived for dinner in a Range Rover. After the meal, the couple attempted to elude the paparazzi by dispatching the Range Rover without them, as a decoy.
But the paparazzi reportedly were on to the couple's movements, and pursued the Mercedes as it headed west on the Rue de Rivoli, along the Tuileries gardens, and then crossed the Place de la Concorde. It turned right off the huge square onto a long, straight, uninterrupted stretch of tree-lined riverside boulevard that leads, after one underground tunnel, into the one where the accident occurred.
Just before the tunnel, however, is a slight turn to the left. If the Mercedes was traveling at the 90 mph that has been reported, even such a large, heavy car might have had trouble staying with the road.
"I don't know if a professional driver could have evaded those photographers or not, but Paris is a city that makes you want to drive fast," said taxi driver Bruno Canale as he navigated the turn into the tunnel at a comfortable 50 mph.
Once inside, it is not clear what made the driver lose control. But from the marks on both sides, the Mercedes appears to have first hit a pillar on the left, then bounced against the right wall, then hit a second pillar on the left hard enough to break away a sizable portion of the concrete, then hit the right side once more, perhaps by this time facing in the position against traffic in which the car was found. Based on the flattened state of the car's roof after the accident, it may have overturned and then righted itself.
There have been conflicting reports about how closely the Mercedes was being tailed by the paparazzi on motorcycles. One witness said on French television that he had been passed by the speeding Mercedes as it entered the tunnel but had seen no motorcycles behind it. Two of the motorcycles impounded by French police after the accident appeared to be of insufficient horsepower to have kept up with the high-powered German sedan.
Not all of the paparazzi in pursuit of the couple's car were taken into custody, according to a photographer at the scene of the accident about two hours later. There had been as many as 12 photographers involved in the chase, he said, indicating that some were at large and at least one had returned to shoot film of the wrecked car after the ambulances departed.
Photographers at the scene of the accident later also said -- while noting that they were not eyewitnesses -- that some of the pursuing paparazzi had been beaten by French police in the minutes following the accident, their film and their cameras confiscated. Other reports said the photographers had been beaten by onlookers. None of the allegations could be confirmed.
After the Mercedes, crushed virtually beyond recognition, was hauled out of the tunnel around 5 a.m. local time, the focus shifted across the city to the hospital where the accident victims had been taken. Already, a sizable crowd of journalists had gathered across the street from the hospital compound, and rumors began to circulate that Diana, whose condition had been described as grave, had died. French security forces arrived in buses and began erecting metal barricades along the sidewalks in anticipation of the huge crowds of media and onlookers who appeared at daybreak and stayed throughout the day.
At about 5:30 a.m., some 50 journalists were admitted into the hospital compound and ushered hastily into a room for a briefing on the accident. Minutes later, looking grim, the briefers arrived: Bruno Riou and Alain Pavie, the doctors who had treated Diana; Interior Minister Jean-Pierre Chevenement; British Ambassador Michael Jay; and Paris police prefect Philippe Massoni.
The doctors reported that upon her arrival at Pitie Salpetriere Hospital, the Princess of Wales "suffered very serious thoracic [chest cavity] hemorrhaging followed quickly by cardiac arrest. An urgent thoracotomy [surgical opening of the chest] showed a serious wound to the left pulmonary vein [which carries blood from the lungs to the heart]. Despite the closure of this wound and external and internal cardiac massage for two hours, circulation could not be restarted and death was pronounced at 4 o'clock this morning."
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