Twenty years on, the world still mourns the loss of the “People’s Princess”. A fatal car accident brought her short life to an end – or was it an accident at all? Conspiracy clouds the circumstances of her death with many (including Dodi Fayed’s – who died in the car crash with Princess Diana – father, Mohamed Al-Fayed), claiming that the “accident” was orchestrated by the Royal Family.
We’re not here to counter or endorse any of the many theories about what happened, but instead to shed some light of the crucial forensic evidence that was used at the time of the crash to reconstruct the horrifying sequence of events.
What happened on that fateful night?
Driven by Henri Paul, the deputy head of security at the Hotel Ritz Paris (owned by Al-Fayed), Princess Diana and Dodi left from the rear entrance of hotel after midnight on the 31st of August 1997 in a black Mercedes. A decoy vehicle had departed moments before from the main entrance in order to divert the many lingering photographers away from the couple.
Shortly after, at approximately 12:23 am, Paul lost control of the vehicle at the entrance of the Place de l’Alma tunnel. After swerving violently to the left, the car collided with a large pillar in the tunnel before spinning and hitting the tunnel’s solid stone wall.
Princess Diana died hours after the crash, at approximately 4:00 am, from severe internal injuries.
Eyewitness accounts from those in the tunnel at the time of the crash report harrowing details of the events and their aftermath.
Francoise Levistre, a French citizen who claims to have been driving in front of Princess Diana’s vehicle, said that he saw a motorcycle swerve directly in front of the car before the driver lost control. Other accounts also claim to have seen several motorcycles, some with more than two people riding, swarming the car as it entered the tunnel.
These people were paparazzi. The paparazzi had found the car that carried the Princess. Their interference and the distraction they caused are widely believed to have triggered the horrible events that followed.
In the moments following the crash, the same people aboard the motorcycles, about four or five according to one eye witness, surrounded the car. Not to help, no, but to take photographs that would later be confiscated by police.
The car was, unsurprisingly, damaged beyond recognition. Upon examination of the wreck, the dial of the speedometer was stuck on 190km/h (about 120mph). Further investigation, corroborated by eyewitness accounts, concluded that Henri was driving at approximately 100km/h (about 60mph) at the time of the collision. This was still double the speed limit.
Neither Princess Diana nor Dodi were wearing seatbelts.
White paint scratches were discovered on the right hand side of the black car. Furthermore, red shattered glass found at the scene indicated that another car had been involved in some way (the Mercedes didn’t have any red glass in its build). Analysts at the Institut de Recherche Criminelle de la Gendarmerie Nationale (the forensic science service for the French police) determined through rigorous testing that the red glass belonged to a Fiat Uno manufactured between May 1983 and September 1989. Of course, this glass could have been remnant of a past accident. What did the paint reveal?
The white paint was a type of base coat, called Bianco Corfu 224, and was also commonly used on the Fiat Unos. Further analysis of the scratches indicated that the mysterious Fiat Uno, still unidentified to this day, only brushed against the Mercedes, likely in the moments before the latter collided with the pillar.
The toxicology results
This is one of the most hotly contested aspects of the investigation: the results of analysis of blood samples taken from the driver, Henri Paul.
According the blood samples taken from Paul at autopsy, his blood alcohol level was 0.065%. At this level, you can expect impairment of reasoning and peripheral vision, and the ability of your eyes to adjust to different lighting conditions, to name a few. Traces of antidepressants were also identified. This could certainly explain why it was so easy for Paul to lose control of the vehicle, especially given that they were being chased by a number of motorcycles.
Tests were conducted a number of times to verify these findings – this included a test of the vitreous humour of the eye (the jelly-like substance in the eye) which is considered one of the most accurate estimations of blood alcohol level.
A large number of people believe that these results were faked given that CCTV footage appears to show what they describe as a very sober Paul before the crash. Furthermore, they believe the levels of carbon monoxide also identified in Paul’s blood indicate that he was poisoned. However, these levels are quite normal for a smoker, which Paul was.
In 2009, DNA analysis of the blood on which the analyses were performed verified these as belonging to the driver.
Despite what you believe about what really happened, what the world can agree on is that Princess Diana’s death was a significant, and, based on the evidence, a completely avoidable tragedy.
Your turn: Do you know of an important piece of evidence that we didn’t include? Tell us about it in the comments below, we’d love to hear from you!