Driver in Paris Crash Said to Be DrunkBy Anne Swardson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, September 2, 1997; Page A01
PARIS, Sept. 1—The driver of the Mercedes sedan carrying Princess Diana was legally drunk when he crashed in a roadway tunnel here early Sunday, killing Diana, companion Dodi Fayed and himself, the Paris prosecutor's office said today.
The announcement did not specify his blood alcohol level, but news agencies quoted official sources as saying it was three times the legal limit for driving in France.
The driver, who was identified today as Henri Paul, 41, had been trained in defensive driving on the same type of Mercedes he was operating the night of the accident.
Lawyers for photographers who were following the speeding car argued that the revelation shifted responsibility from those cameramen, who have been widely blamed for precipitating the accident. This "may modify a lot of things," said William Bourdon, lawyer for Nicolas Arsov, a photographer for the SIPA press agency. "This explains that crazy speed."
Widespread reports here have said that the sedan, a Mercedes-Benz S-280, was traveling at a speed of at least 90 mph in a 30-mph zone when it struck a concrete pillar in the tunnel under the Alma bridge in central Paris, and possibly much faster. Reports today said the car's speedometer was frozen at 196 kilometers per hour, or 122 mph. Nevertheless, the Paris prosecutor's office said today it plans to begin proceedings Tuesday against some or all of the seven photographers police have been holding for questioning since the accident.
Bernard Dartevelle, a lawyer for Mohamed Fayed, Dodi Fayed's wealthy father and owner of the Hotel Ritz, said the revelation "changes absolutely nothing." He spoke of an "ambience of harassment" created around Diana and Fayed by the constant presence of intrusive celebrity photographers, or "paparazzi."
"The Ritz had to organize their departure under special conditions . . . to have the regular chauffeur drive an empty vehicle and ask another driver to take the wheel of this one," Dartevelle said. "There is incontestably a causal link between the disaster and the pursuit by the journalists. If the journalists had not been present, if they had not organized the pursuit, we wouldn't have had to send a decoy, we wouldn't have had to turn to another driver, and he wouldn't have been speeding."
News agencies quoted prosecutors as saying Paul's alcohol level was 1.75 grams per liter of blood, while the legal limit for driving in France is 0.5 grams -- the level after about two glasses of wine. The 0.5 gram limit is equivalent to a blood alcohol content of 0.06 percent, making the French law slightly stricter than those of most U.S. states, which set the limit at 0.08 or 0.10 percent blood alcohol content. By that measure, Paul's alcohol level was 0.23 percent.
In addition to holding the cameramen, Paris police searched the offices of major photo agencies Sunday, and have developed film seized from the photographers at the site of the accident.
"At the expiration of the deadline for holding for questioning, it is planned to request the opening of a judicial investigation," the prosecutor's office said in a statement. In France, people held for questioning can be detained for up to 48 hours. Under French law, opening an investigation is one step toward charging someone with an offense; a person who is the target of such an investigation is presumed to be a suspect. Possible charges include involuntary homicide, presumably by interfering with the path of Diana's car, and failing to help the victims of an accident, which is obligatory under French law. Widespread reports indicated that three or four of the photographers would be released and that others would be charged with failing to help the victims.
Some members of the public continued to hold the press responsible for the princess's death. One graffito scrawled overnight on the wall of the tunnel where the crash occurred said: "Paparazzi assassins." In Britain, a bitter debate over intrusive media coverage of the royal family continued to grow, and there were calls for tough new privacy laws, curbs on electronic eavesdropping and other possible strictures on the prying press.
Although police again declined today to discuss their investigation into the fatal crash, new details from witnesses emerged. Several described photographers swarming around the car just after the accident, taking pictures of the victims.
Frederick Mailliez, a physician, told France 2 television that he came upon the accident almost immediately after it occurred. After calling for an ambulance on his car phone, Mailliez said, he went to the aid of Diana, whom he did not recognize. She was unconscious, he said, but moving her limbs. As he worked on her, he was surrounded by 10 to 15 photographers, their flash units popping. They did not interfere with him but did not offer to help, he said.
He said Diana's head lay on her shoulder "in a position in which you cannot breathe if you are unconscious." He said he lifted her head and used an oxygen mask to help her breathe.
American tourists Jack and Robin Firestone told the Agence France-Presse news service that they were in a taxi heading in the direction opposite the Mercedes and saw the wrecked car in the tunnel almost immediately after the accident. Robin Firestone said about five photographers were taking pictures as police tried to remove them from the scene.
She told AFP she saw a blond woman partly hanging out of a shattered side window from the back seat. Her head was twisted to one side, and the photographers were taking pictures from just a few inches away. Firestone said she and her family were "shocked" by the photographers' behavior.
Le Monde newspaper reported that photographers jostled passersby who were attempting to offer help and told police trying to move them to let them do their work. Other photographers were reported to have fled police. One witness described an officer on foot chasing a man with a big bag over his shoulder; another report said two photographers sped away in a car.
The only survivor of the crash, bodyguard Trevor Rees-Jones, was hospitalized with brain and chest injuries. The hospital said his life is not in danger but that he still is not able to speak with police.
Lawyers for the photographers contended they were being condemned before any judgment and without any evidence. "Without any decision of justice, these photographers are being presented as responsible for the accident," said Gilbert Collard, lawyer for the Gamma press agency, whose photographer Christian Martinez was one of those detained. "They are responsible for being there, for sure. But I think that's too simple."
"You have to establish a line of cause and effect between the fact that the photographers were following the vehicle and the accident. I find it scandalous that in a judicial democracy like this we throw citizens in the woodshed who don't have a chance to explain and defend themselves."
He said he had not yet met with Martinez, who, because no communication was allowed, was not even aware he had a lawyer. Persons held for questioning are allowed to meet with a lawyer once after the 20th hour, but there is no requirement that the lawyer be present when they answer police questions.
Collard pointed to the driver of the car, as have others, as the principal responsible party. "It was he who caused the accident," he said, even before disclosure of Paul's blood alcohol level. Other photographers in custody were said to be with the Sygma and Angeli agencies, while at least one was a freelancer with no ties to a photo service.
Ritz Hotel officials said Paul was a native of Brittany, in northwest France, and had worked for the Ritz since 1986 after serving in the French army and air force. As assistant director of security, he was not employed as a chauffeur, but a Ritz official said Paul had received training in defensive driving at a Mercedes training center near Stuttgart, Germany. He also was a private pilot and a former parachutist, the official said.
Among the vehicles he trained in, according to the Ritz, was a Mercedes-Benz S-280, the same kind of car he was driving the night of the fatal crash. The Ritz had indicated initially that the car was a Mercedes S-600 because several of the hotel's leased autos had been employed in the decoy chase in an attempt to lure photographers off Diana's trail.
The car was not specially armored but was still a heavy vehicle and capable of traveling at great speed. Le Monde reported today that, as the Mercedes turned left to enter the tunnel in which the accident occurred, it came up behind a car traveling at the legal speed limit of 30 mph. If true, it noted, Paul might have been forced to turn the car more quickly than its high speed could tolerate.
Daimler-Benz AG, maker of the Mercedes-Benz S-280, is launching its own investigation into the crash, company sources said today. Like other major automakers, Daimler-Benz keeps teams of specialists available to examine any of its products involved in fatal crashes, company sources said.
Correspondent Charles Trueheart contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company