This day in history

31 August - Princess Diana dies

On this day in 1997 Diana, Princess of Wales, dies in Pitie-Salpetiere Hospital, Paris, after suffering massive chest injuries in an early morning car accident. Her companion, Dodi al-Fayed, was killed instantly in the 12:25 a.m. crash, as was driver Henri Paul, who lost control of the Mercedes in a highway underpass. He was driving at excessive speeds in a reckless attempt to escape paparazzi photographers. Diana's bodyguard, Trevor Rees Jones, escaped with serious but nonfatal injuries. He was the only one wearing his seat belt. The death of Diana, beloved by millions for her beauty and good nature, plunged the world into mourning.

Diana Frances Spencer was born at Park House on 1 July 1961, the home that her parents rented on Queen Elizabeth II's estate at Sandringham, England. In her childhood, her playmates were Prince Andrew and Prince Edward, the younger sons of Queen Elizabeth. When her father inherited the title Earl of Spencer in 1975, she became known as Lady Diana Spencer. After completing her education, Lady Diana became a kindergarten teacher at a fashionable school in a suburb of London.

In 1980, she began a romance with Prince Charles, the eldest son of Queen Elizabeth. In February 1981, the 33-year-old Prince of Wales announced his engagement to the 19-year-old schoolteacher. Diana's beauty and shy demeanour made her an instant media sensation, and on 29 July 1981, nearly one billion television viewers in 74 countries tuned in to witness her marriage to the heir to the British throne. Married in a grand ceremony at St. Paul's Cathedral, the couple's romance was, for the moment, the envy of the world. Their first child, Prince William, was born in 1982, and their second, Prince Harry, in 1984.

Before long, however, the fairy tale couple grew apart, an experience that was particularly painful under the ubiquitous eyes of the world's tabloid media. The paparazzi made Diana one of the most photographed women in the world, and privately she suffered from eating disorders and depression. In 1992, Diana and Charles formally separated. In August 1996, the prince and princess reached a final divorce agreement after prolonged negotiations. In exchange for a generous settlement and the right to retain her apartments at Kensington Palace and her title Princess of Wales, Diana agreed to relinquish the title ‘Her Royal Highness’ and any future claims to the British throne.

In the year after her divorce, the popular princess seemed well on her way to achieving her dream of becoming "a queen in people's hearts." She maintained a high public profile and continued to promote many humanitarian causes, including support for AIDS victims and a campaign against landmines. In late 1996, she became involved with millionaire Dodi al-Fayed, the son of the Egyptian-born owner of Harrods in London. Their romance grew in 1997, and in August Diana took a holiday with al-Fayed in the Mediterranean. As always, the paparazzi followed closely behind, and one photographer was paid $3 million by the tabloids for a photo of Diana and al-Fayed kissing on his yacht.

On 30 August, Diana and al-Fayed flew from Sardinia to Paris. Diana planned to return to Kensington Palace the next morning after spending a night in al-Fayed’s Paris villa. That evening, Diana and al-Fayed dined at a restaurant in Paris' Ritz Hotel, owned by al-Fayed's father since 1979. The paparazzi came out in force. Toward the end of the meal, al-Fayed told his chauffeur to drive his car back to his mansion in an attempt to draw off photographers. Henri Paul, the deputy chief of security at the Ritz, was enlisted to be the new driver. He agreed, even though he had been drinking heavily and was taking anti-depressant drugs that were not supposed to be mixed with alcohol.

Around midnight, al-Fayed and Diana emerged from the rear entrance of the Ritz. The paparazzi had not been fooled by the earlier ruse, and the couple were photographed getting into a bullet-proof Mercedes along with Diana's bodyguard. As they made their way across town, they were followed closely by paparazzi on motorcycles. On the Place de la Concorde, Henri Paul hit the accelerator in an attempt to escape the press. By the time they reached the underpass below the Pont de l'Alma, the driver was travelling an estimated 120 mph in a 30-mph speed zone. Paul lost control as they flew into the underpass, and the Mercedes ricocheted off a wall and slammed into pillars supporting the tunnel roof. The paparazzi, 100 yards behind at the time of the accident, were able to stop in time. Several of them then ran down the tunnel and began taking photos, which were later confiscated by police.

The Mercedes, lying crushed against the 13th pillar, was a tangle of smoking metal. Diana, barely alive with serious chest injuries, was trapped inside. Emergency crews arrived within minutes, but because the car was made of reinforced steel meant to withstand bullets it took nearly an hour and a half to extricate her from the crumbled vehicle. She was taken to the Pitie-Salpetiere Hospital, where she suffered cardiac arrest minutes after her arrival. Surgeons failed to revive her, and at 3 a.m. she was pronounced dead. She was 36.

Diana's bodyguard was the only survivor of the crash. He suffered a concussion and other injuries and has no memory of the crash nor the events immediately preceding or following it. French authorities arrested 10 paparazzi photographers who were tailing the Mercedes and charged them with involuntary manslaughter. The charges were dropped when a formal investigation concluded that Henri Paul was solely at fault for the fatal accident.

The tragic death of Diana caused an outpouring of British national feeling not seen since the celebrations surrounding the end of World War II. Mourners brought more than a million bouquets of flowers to the royal palaces and waited in line more than 12 hours to sign books of condolences. More than 3,500 phone lines were set up to take donations for a memorial fund, and within a year the charity fund raised $133 million, of which $48 million came from sales of Elton John's memorial recording "Candle in the Wind 1997" and $20 million from official Diana souvenirs.

After being criticised for failing to satisfactorily match the grief of the British people, the royal family arranged for a state funeral to be held for Diana at Westminster Abbey on 6 September. Diana's coffin was taken from Kensington Palace to the Abbey on a horse-drawn gun carriage, and an estimated one million mourners lined the route. Diana's sons, William, 15, and Harry, 12, joined their father, Prince Charles; grandfather Prince Philip; and uncle Charles, the Earl of Spencer, to walk the final stretch of the procession with the casket. The only sound was the clatter of the horses' hooves and the peal of a church bell.

The service, watched by an estimated two billion people worldwide, sacrificed royal pomp for a more human touch. Workers associated with Diana's various charities represented 500 of the 2,000 people invited to attend the funeral. Elton John, a friend of Diana, lent a popular touch to the ceremony when he sang "Candle in the Wind," accompanying himself on piano. After the service, Diana's body was taken by hearse to her family's ancestral estate near Althorp, north of London. In a private ceremony, she was laid to rest on a tree-shaded island in a small lake, securely beyond the reach of the camera lens.

Since the death of Princess Diana, Althorp, which has been in the Spencer family for over 500 years, is now a popular tourist attraction that offers tours to the general public.

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