Thursday,14 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1359, (7 - 13 September 2017)
Thursday,14 December, 2017
Issue 1359, (7 - 13 September 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Last ride

We might not ever know the truth behind the death of Princess Diana but on the 20th anniversary of her passing, Mohamed Abdel-Razek sheds light on the cars that made up part of that fateful night

First picture for the crashed W140 in the tunnel

For those who lived through one of the most shocking tragedies of the 1990s it seems it was only yesterday when Diana, the princess of Wales, died in a car crash in Paris, along with her partner Emadeddin Al-Fayed, better known as Dodi, and driver Henri Paul, shocking news that was broadcast the world over on 31 August 1997.

The day started early that night, from the second news broke out that Diana’s involvement in a car accident had left her seriously injured. Thousands across the world froze in front of their TV sets, waiting for the updates, hoping this was just a nightmare that would end once the sun rose. But it never did. The news was confirmed at 4am France time. The People’s Princess had died.

After 20 years, the stories within the stories never ended. Was it an accident or a murder? Mohamed Al-Fayed, the Egyptian billionaire and Dodi’s father, started pointing fingers at the British royal family and British intelligence, the MI6, accusing them of murdering Diana and Dodi after they were close to announcing their engagement in London. “The British Royal Family would’ve never accepted the future king, William, to have a Muslim stepfather or a Muslim brother, so they killed Diana and Dodi,” claimed Al-Fayed, who accused Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, of backing the operation along with Queen Elizabeth.

Tons of books have been written on Diana’s death. Some backed the conspiracy theories while others supported what the French and British authorities said was an everyday accident caused by the drunk driver Henri Paul.

We might not ever know the truth but at least from the automotive angle, light can be shed on the cars that made up part of the story.

In the 1990s, the Mercedes S-Class W140, was the flagship of the German manufacturer, taking over the W126 of the 1980s; reliable luxury on four wheels used by many businessmen and celebrities as well as hotel and limousine companies. The Fayeds were no different. The W140 was the limousine taking its valuable guests from and to Harrods and the Ritz of Paris, which were both owned by Mohamed Al-Fayed in the 1990s (he still owns the Ritz but sold Harrods in 2010 to the Qatari royal family for £1.5 billion).  

The W140 was also the last car Diana and Dodi were in before their death.


Diana

The Ritz Paris 1997 was the hotel in 15 Place Vendome where Dodi and Diana were staying for a weekend vacation. The couple arrived at Le Bourget airport, via Dodi’s private jet, on 30 August at 3:20 pm, coming from Sardinia where they were enjoying the Mediterranean. They were accompanied by two of Al-Fayed’s bodyguards, Trevor-Rees Jones and Kes Wingfield, who were especially appointed by Dodi’s father. Henri Paul, the Ritz security chief, was there waiting to take the couple to the hotel with two top of the line W140s 600SEL owned by Etoile Limousine, the company that provided the hotel with cars at that time. Paul drove the backup car to the hotel accompanied by Wingfield in the front passenger seat, while the car that had the couple was driven by the Etoile Limousine chauffeur, with Jones in the front passenger seat.

Before arriving at the hotel, the couple stopped at the Villa Windsor, owned by Al-Fayed, where Diana and Dodi were expected to live when they got married. Then the convoy headed to the centre of Paris, to the Ritz Hotel where they decided to enter from the service entrance at the back of the hotel to evade the paparazzi. Hours later the couple were driven to Dodi’s private apartment; it was time for dinner. Dodi reserved a table in a restaurant called La Baignoire, but then cancelled the reservation because the restaurant was glass-fronted and would give them no privacy. Instead, they decided to have dinner at the Ritz and then return to the apartment. By night the number of paparazzi had increased, chasing the couple everywhere around Paris. Dodi started asking his guards to keep the paparazzi away, but this was not possible according to Wingfield who said Dodi always refused to let them know about his next move, which made drawing up a protection plan very difficult, according to Wingfield. Diana and Dodi were driven back to the hotel in the same W140 S600SEL they had used the whole day, backed up with a Range Rover, which worked to keep the paparazzi -- 15 of them on motorcycles, according to Pierre Suu, one photographer -- at bay.

“We arrived at the front door and once we got out of the cars we were surrounded by 10 or 12 photographers,” said Wingfield. At that point, Dodi got fed up with the paparazzi.

Informed that the couple had returned to the hotel, Henri Paul returned to the Ritz from his three-hour off duty break. Arriving in his black Mini Morris, Paul passed through the front door, sober and alert, talking to his staff with ease, according to the CCTV cameras as well as Wingfield who said that Paul appeared to be normal and not drunk. After the accident French authorities claimed the reason behind the accident was that Paul, who was driving, was drunk. “He was exactly the same as he was in the afternoon,” added Wingfield, during his interview with BBC.

With many tourists and photographers packed at the front door of the hotel, Paul came out to tell them “the princess is coming out in 10 minutes”, according to Suu. The paparazzi then realised that some of them should go to the backdoor in case the couple snuck out. Three photographers were waiting at the backdoor, at Rue Cambon, while the rest waited at the front, where the cars Diana and Dodi came in were still parked. “I called Dodi and told him to stay at the Ritz that night. It’s not safe, I said, and he agreed with me and told me he will stay,” said Mohamed Al-Fayed who added that Paul, who he believed was an agent for the MI6, convinced Dodi to leave from the backdoor in another car, not armour-plated.

“Dodi came out telling us about the new plan and that we will follow them with the other two cars parked at the front door five minutes after they leave”, said Wingfield. Paul asked the chauffeur to get the W140 S280 in the garage and park it at the backdoor. It was agreed by Dodi that Paul would drive them to the apartment.

The S280 of 1994 was also one of the Litoule Limousine fleet, but this car in particular had a dark history. It was stolen from its original owner four months after he had bought it. It was then found totalled in a farm after a prisoner crashed it; it rolled over 10 times. The owner then took the money from the insurance and the car was then sold to a garage. The garage then restored the car and sold it to Etoile Limousine in 1996 for £40,000, half its value.

Talking to The Mirror, Karim Kazi, a former chauffeur who used to drive the S280, said the car was not stable at speed and always complained it was not safe. In April 1997, the S280 Mercedes was stolen again and then found days later with some electronic parts stolen, including the power steering system and the computer control unit which were both replaced for £15,000.

It was not a car that anyone would like to drive or be driven in, but Paul jumped into it after telling the paparazzi “don’t try to follow us”. The car took off at 12:15 am. Instead of heading towards the direct shorter route to the apartment through the Shanzelize, Paul decided to head towards Pont de l’Alma tunnel, maybe to outrun the paparazzi; nobody knows for sure.

Then it was time for it to happen. At 12:23 am, the car crashed into the 13th pillar in the tunnel and spun, facing the other side next to the wall. Henri Paul in the driver’s seat was killed instantly. Trevor-Rees Jones, in the front passenger seat, received severe facial injuries after his face smashed into the airbag and side window. Dodi who died minutes after the crash, suffered cardiac arrest. Diana remained partially conscious.

The first to arrive at the scene was a passerby medical doctor, Frederick Mayan. “I entered the tunnel while I was driving off duty with my friend,” Dr Mayan said. “We saw smoke coming out of the crashed car. I parked my car on the other side of the tunnel, went into the car to see Diana on the floor between the front and back seats. I then went to my car and got my respiratory emergency bag and went back to help Diana.”

It took an ambulance six minutes to arrive, at 1:43 am. While Diana was pulled out of the car she suffered cardiac arrest and it took some time until she was revived, according to a report by the ambulance doctor who has never been identified.

The ambulance then took off travelling at only 18 km/h because according to the report, in such situations when blood pressure is unstable, sudden acceleration and sudden braking can be fatal. The ambulance skipped four hospitals near the crash site, heading to Pitie Salpetriere Hospital, arriving at 1:55 am. Approaching the hospital, the ambulance stopped. A police officer was seen standing beside it, talking in his cell phone. Hospital doctors said Diana had another cardiac arrest which is why they stopped. At 2:06, nearly two hours after the crash, Diana reached the hospital. At 4am she was pronounced dead.

Until today, the official conclusion of the French and British authorities confirms the reason behind the accident: Paul was three times over the legally allowed drinking level. But at the same time the 17 CCTV cameras across the route of the S280 towards the Alma tunnel were all shut down the night of the tragedy. Paul’s parents deny the accusations that their son was an alcoholic.

There was a white Fiat Uno involved in the crash that has never been identified. A car that has its paint marks on the Mercedes is believed by Mohamed Al-Fayed to be owned by the famous paparazzi James Andanson, who was later accused by Al-Fayed of helping in the killing of Diana and Dodi. Andanson was found burnt alive in his BMW compact in 2000 with two bullets in his skull according to fireman Christopher Pelat who talked to Express UK. Andanson was thought to have committed suicide according to French police.

With 20 per cent carbon monoxide found in Paul’s blood to examine his alcohol level, John Mcnamara, former head of Mohamed Al-Fayed’s security detail and ex-Scotland Yard agent, said the amount was enough to make a person dizzy and vomit. But that did not happen to Paul at all before the crash.

Mcnamara claimed the blood was not Henri Paul’s but someone who committed suicide inhaling car exhaust. He later said he was mistaken and retracted the claim before British judges. French authorities said the carbon monoxide in Paul’s blood was due to the airbag which inflated upon collision. Later a spokesman for Mercedes said their air bags were designed to save lives and did not contain that much carbon monoxide.

Twenty years on, the hearts of millions across the world are still broken. Diana meant a lot to the world. Many people lived her story from the beginning of her fairytale wedding, watched her smile even though they knew she was living a life full of pain. But she was keen to spread love wherever she went. The public wanted to see her living a life full of love and joy that she always wanted.

In that summer of 1997, she had apparently found the joy she had been looking for, if only for a few days.

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