How Did Princess Diana Die? Facts About The Fatal Car Accident

·9 min read

Prince Harry has called it “a wound that festers” in his life, while his older brother, Prince William, has referred to it as “a pain like no other pain.”

Both men were referring to the event that forever altered their lives when they were still just boys — the devastating death of their mother, Diana, Princess of Wales.

The year was 1997, and though Diana had been separated from her king-to-be husband, Prince Charles, for five years and divorced from him for one, none of that had done anything to diminish the 36-year-old’s global fame. She remained a popular humanitarian, an admired royal rebel and an international style icon.

The fascination with the former Lady Diana Spencer made her a fixture in newspapers and on tabloid and book covers. She was the most photographed woman of her time. She was beloved.

Then, suddenly, she was gone.

Read on to learn about her death and the timeline of remarkable incidents that both preceded and followed the tragedy.

A timeline of Diana's final day

Diana’s last day was spent alongside her boyfriend at the time, 42-year-old Dodi Fayed, a film producer and the son of billionaire Harrod's owner Mohamed Al Fayed, as Christopher Andersen detailed in the book “The Day Diana Died.”

The pair had arrived in Paris from Sardinia on August 30, 1997, after spending more than a week together yachting around the Mediterranean, per a yacht crewmember’s recollections to WWD They’d shared a meal that Saturday evening at the Ritz Paris, the grand hotel owned by Fayed’s father, before leaving in the early hours of Sunday morning for Fayed’s Paris apartment, per NBC.

That’s when the couple set out in a Mercedes-Benz driven by Henri Paul, a man who served as the deputy head of security at the Ritz, per the BBC. They were accompanied by bodyguard Trevor Rees-Jones.

Shortly after the car entered the Pont de L’Alma tunnel, less than two miles from where their journey began, Paul lost control of the vehicle. AP reports that witnesses saw the sedan speeding.

Attempting to avoid crashing into a white Fiat Uno in the right-hand lane, Paul collided into the tunnel’s 13th pillar, resulting in a devastating collision that killed both Paul and Fayed at the scene, per NBC.

Rees-Jones survived the impact, as did Diana — briefly. Andersen, in “The Day Diana Died,” said the entire trip, from the Ritz to the tunnel, took three minutes.

Princess Diana's last words were recalled

The royal remained alive as first responders arrived on the scene of the crash.

“The woman, who I later found out was Princess Diana, was on the floor in the back (of the car),” French firefighter Xavier Gourmelon said in a 2017 interview with The Sun, given after he left the service. “She was moving very slightly, and I could see she was alive.”

Gourmelon, who was part a 10-man team that made it to the crash site just minutes after the impact, later told ITV’s “Good Morning Britain,” that he’d tried to calm an “agitated” Diana, who’d said, “My God, what’s happened?”

He went on to explain, “We took her out of a car, put her on a stretcher, and at that moment the doctor said she was in cardiac arrest. So we gave her CPR, and after 20 seconds she regained consciousness and we transferred her to the ambulance.”

Gourmelon believed Diana would live, but hours later, after she’d been transported to a Paris hospital, he and the rest of the world learned the princess died from her injuries.

What caused the deadly crash?

Multiple factors may have played into the collision.

Before the crash, eyewitnesses had observed a number of photographers pursuing the Mercedes-Benz on motorcycles, per Anderson’s book and the BBC, but it remains unknown the degree to which that affected the driver’s actions.

According to the Paris public prosecutors’ office, blood analysis revealed the driver, Paul, had been found to have a blood alcohol content that exceeded France's legal limits.

Additionally, Diana, Fayed and Paul were not wearing seat belts, CNN reports. Whether Rees-Jones was wearing a seatbelt remained a question. Rees-Jones told “60 Minutes” in 2000 he did not remember anything from the crash.

The paparazzi did more than pursue Diana

After chasing after the car, the paparazzi remained at the scene of the accident, photographing Diana in her final moments.

“I think one of the hardest things to come to terms with is the fact that the people that chased her into the tunnel were the same people that were taking photographs of her while she was still dying on the back seat of the car,” Diana’s youngest son, Prince Harry, explained in the 2017 BBC documentary “Diana, 7 Days.”

“William and I know that. We’ve been told that numerous times by people that know that was the case.”

Harry emphasized his own belief that the photographers were to blame for the crash.

“Those people that caused the accident, instead of helping, were taking photographs of her dying,” he said in the BBC documentary “Diana, 7 Days.”

Her sons found out while in Scotland

As news of the shocking event quickly spread around the world, Diana’s children — Prince William, who was 15 at the time, and Prince Harry, 12 — learned about their mother’s fate from their father, Prince Charles, while the family vacationed at Balmoral Castle in Scotland.

“One of the hardest things for a parent to have to do is to tell your children that your other parent has died,” Harry explained in that same BBC documentary. “How you deal with that I don’t know but, you know, he was there for us.”

The world mourned the People’s Princess

Diana’s death stunned the public and sparked an outpouring of grief around the world.

That day, in London, mourners gathered outside the famed royal residences, turning the gates of Buckingham Palace and Kensington Palace into bouquet-covered memorials.

Flowers and mourners outside Kensington Palace in the days following the funeral of Princess Diana, in London, England, September 1997. (HBO Max / Alamy Stock Photo)
Flowers and mourners outside Kensington Palace in the days following the funeral of Princess Diana, in London, England, September 1997. (HBO Max / Alamy Stock Photo)

Prime Minister Tony Blair addressed the public on Aug. 31, noting that he, as everyone else, was “utterly devastated” by the news.

“The people everywhere, not just here in Britain, kept faith with Princess Diana,” he said. “They liked her, they loved her, they regarded her as one of the people. She was the People’s Princess, and that is how she will stay, how she will remain in our hearts and our memories forever.”

The royal family’s response was delayed

While the public grieved openly and treated Diana’s death as a national tragedy for Britain, the nation’s monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, remained quiet in the days following the loss, save for a statement noting that she and Prince Philip were “deeply shocked and distressed” by the news issued on Aug. 31, per AP.

The queen’s silence was perceived as indifference by some mourners, a scenario later fictionalized in the 2006 film “The Queen.” The backlash became so great the queen’s press secretary, Geoffrey Crawford, released a rare response to the criticism.

"The royal family have been hurt by suggestions that they are indifferent to the country’s sorrow at the tragic death of the Princess of Wales,’’ Crawfprd said in a statement, which he read outside St. James’s Palace.

"The Princess was a much-loved national figure, but she was also a mother whose sons miss her deeply. Prince William and Prince Harry themselves want to be with their father and grandparents at this time in the quiet haven of Balmoral. As their grandmother, the Queen is helping the princes to come to terms with their loss.”

Five days after Diana’s death and just one day before her funeral, the queen returned to London and finally addressed the public herself.

“We have all been trying in our different ways to cope. It is not easy to express a sense of loss, since the initial shock is often succeeded by a mixture of other feelings: disbelief, incomprehension, anger — and concern for those who remain. We have all felt those emotions in these last few days. So what I say to you now, as your Queen and as a grandmother, I say from my heart.”

She went on to acknowledge the impact of the loss and to praise Diana as “an exceptional and gifted human being.”

The funeral was witnessed by billions

On September 6, 1997, a funeral was held for Diana.

Prince Philip, Prince Charles, Diana’s brother Earl Spencer and both William and Harry walked behind the coffin in the cortege from Kensington Palace to Westminster Abbey.

A former government relations director recently told the UK’s Evening Standard that Prince Philip’s presence in the procession was a gesture of support to his young grandsons.

“I’ll walk if you walk,” the late royal was heard to tell them the night before the event.

The Guardian reported that a crowd of “a million and more” lined the route to Westminster Abbey. Another 2.5 billion watched the event on television, per the BBC.

At the church, politicians, celebrities, friends and family gathered for the service, including Diana’s longtime friend Elton John, who performed a re-worked version of “Candle in the Wind” in her honor.

Diana was laid to rest in a private ceremony later that day on a small island in the middle of an ornamental lake in Althorp Park, Northamptonshire.

She was honored with a statue in 2021

The late Princess of Wales remains a cultural icon for the public and a beloved matriarch to her sons.

On July 1, 2021, Prince William and Prince Harry unveiled a statue of the mother at Kensington Palace.

“Today, on what would have been our mother’s 60th birthday, we remember her love, strength and character — qualities that made her a force for good around the world, changing countless lives for the better,” the brothers said in a joint statement. “Every day, we wish she were still with us, and our hope is that this statue will be seen forever as a symbol of her life and her legacy.”