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Mounful Crowds Watch Coffin Arrive

Hearse carrying body of Diana
The hearse carrying the body of Diana, Princess of Wales, passes through the gates of Kensington Palace. (AP)
By Roxanne Roberts
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, Sept. 6, 1997; Page D01

LONDON, Sept. 5 — It was the windows of the hearse that took everybody by surprise. They were wide and high, so everybody could see Diana's coffin inside. It was covered by the gold and red royal standard and topped by a spray of white lilies, her favorite flowers.

A collective gasp came from thousands of people, and then a stunned silence. Despite a week of national mourning for the dead princess, the sight of her casket this evening was still a profound shock.

Stella Andretta burst into tears and collapsed into the arms of a stranger. "It just hit me," she said, choking out the words. "It's real. It's real."

It was an extraordinary night to be in London. The temperature was mild, almost warm. The wet air was heavy with the perfume of flowers -- hundreds of thousands of bouquets left in tribute to Diana. The swarm of mourners at Kensington Palace tonight only hinted at the crowd expected for Saturday's funeral, which is expected to draw millions of people to the city by morning.

Diana's coffin was moved from St. James's Palace to Kensington Palace, her London residence, where it will remain until the formal procession through the city tomorrow. The hearse was followed by a car carrying Prince Charles, his face frozen in a look of utter loss, and the two young princes, William and Harry.

The public knew the coffin was moving to the palace this evening, but the time and route were not announced because the move is not considered part of the formal proceedings.

Still, people came, like pilgrims drawn by a force they could not fully explain. Most carried flowers. Seven-year-old Sarah Alderton had her own tribute -- two well-loved toy lambs in a small wicker basket. Her mother helped her write the note: "For sweet Diana and Dodi, Lambs of God. Love, Sarah."

The people of England have surprised everybody, including themselves, with this display of emotion. "This is one of the most important weeks in British history," said Ian Bannister of London.

First there was shock, then anger, but tonight they were wet and tired and terribly, terribly sad. They were grieving for Diana, but they were grieving for themselves, too.

"We didn't appreciate her while she was alive," said Bannister. "We've got to do it now."

Tens of thousands of mourners flocked to Kensington Palace today. Those who lined up to enter the grounds about 7:30 p.m. watched the police begin to move with the silent purpose that indicates something big is about to happen. The crowd froze. It was real. The coffin was coming.

The slate clouds opened, and the rain reminded everyone that this was England. It stopped just as suddenly. Dusk fell and candles flickered against the barricades lining the street. Two heart-shaped balloons drifted into the sky.

It was impossible to move. Bodies were pressed against bodies. An exhausted little girl, maybe 2 years old, struggled in the arms of her father. "Mummy," she sobbed. "I want my mummy." On any other night, her cries would have been dismissed. On this night, they cut through the crowd.

Charles and the princes came to the palace grounds earlier in the day to see the floral carpet and the mourners. "God bless you, William," they cried, reaching out to comfort and touch the young boys. One look told you what the British people, in the end, need from the royal family: humanity, compassion and a reason to love them.

Five hours later, the air was so thick that the streetlights had halos. The traffic lights began to have a hypnotic effect on the crowd as they waited: red, green, yellow. Charles, Diana, the queen. What will become of all of this?

Suddenly, the crowd tensed. "Here you go," they shouted. "This is it."

Five motorcycles appeared with blinding, flashing blue lights, and then at 8:40 p.m., the hearse approached down Kensington Road. The headlights were dimmed, and raindrops sparkled on the windows.

"Oh my God."

The hearse moved slowly. It had a shattering effect, perhaps because most people didn't expect to see her coffin tonight.

Tears poured down faces, but all eyes were fixed on the windows of the hearse.

Some people tossed their bouquets, which landed on top of the hearse. Some crossed themselves. Most were just grim-faced.

A voice cut through the silence.

"Goodbye, Diana," cried one mourner. "Goodbye, my darling."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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