A Deadly Puzzle

THERE ARE FOUR KNOWN eye-witnesses to all of the events leading up to the fatal crash, and three of them are dead. The fourth, bodyguard Trevor Rees-Jones, lies in Pitie Salpetriere Hospital with injuries so grave (his lips and tongue were torn off) that he has been unable to communicate with police. For now, that leaves French investigators with people whose accounts of the tragedy range from self-serving to unreliable. Even the ""hard'' evidence, from skid marks to the blood-alcohol level of the driver, tells an ambiguous story. But with the public crying out for an explanation--indeed, for a scapegoat--the blame game is being played for high stakes. The tabloids, stung by the public's fury over their role in the princess's death, would like to fix blame on the driver (who, blood tests indicate, was drunk) and spread the erroneous report that the car was careering along at 121 miles per hour. And the Fayed camp has unleashed its PR machine, insinuating that no driver, even cold sober, could have survived the paparazzi onslaught.

The mystery starts with who followed the couple's Mercedes, and how soon after its attempted escape from the Ritz. Dodi had dispatched his Mercedes 600 and a Range Rover from the hotel's main entrance to serve as decoys. Yet paparazzi who had hounded the couple during their final hours in Paris saw through the ruse. Although security cameras show no photographers at the rear exit when Diana, Dodi and Rees-Jones slipped into the Mercedes S-280 with Henri Paul at the wheel, guards saw a man using a cell phone down the block. Investigators don't know who he was or whom he phoned, but within seconds photographer Romuald Rat had caught up with the car, at a red light in the Place de la Concorde. As the Mercedes took off, ""I [could] not follow it,'' Rat told French television. ""I didn't see it after the first turn. [I and my motorbike driver] kept going on the quai, about 200 or 300 meters behind.'' Nor did he see the accident, Rat said, though he came upon it immediately. French law requires bystanders to call authorities if they witness someone in danger. Rat did not call, he says, because he'd heard that someone else had. If he is telling the truth, he was not the first on the scene.

Who was, and how they came to be there, is becoming clearer. Like Rat, the other five photographers (plus Rat's driver) police held for three days deny being anywhere near the Mercedes when it crashed. Francois Levy was speeding through the tunnel at the same time and in the same direction as Diana and Dodi, but just ahead of them. Levy told reporters that he saw, in his rearview mirror, what he thought was a motorcade that was closing fast. Levy admits going 80 miles per hour at that point. On either side of the Mercedes, he said, were motorcycle headlights. ""The motorcycle to the left of the car made a sort of fishtail maneuver across the front of the Mercedes, and at that point it looked as if a flashbulb went off,'' he told The New York Times. The motorcycle zoomed ahead, ""then I saw the Mercedes veer to the left, to the right and to the left again,'' and he heard an explosive crash. Shaken, he stopped at the tunnel exit, and ""a motorcycle went past me fast with two men on it.'' Who? One possibility: photographers who had snapped pictures of the wreck and sped away before police arrived--and who have now turned themselves in to French authorities. Like the original seven detainees, all are under investigation for the equivalent of involuntary manslaughter.

The Fayed camp argues that by forcing the Mercedes to take evasive action, the photographers' actions were enough to cause the fatal crash even with no other contributing factors. But there was another contributing factor, and his name is Henri Paul. That afternoon the Ritz's assistant security director had met the Fayed private jet at Le Bourget airport and, at the wheel of a Range Rover, ran interference for Dodi's Mercedes 600 by blocking the road and keeping photographers away. Paul, 41, went off duty at 7:05. Where and how the stocky bachelor spent the next three hours remains unclear. When Diana and Dodi unexpectedly returned to the Ritz just before 10 p.m., a security man called Paul's mobile-phone number. That suggests he was not in his apartment, a 10-minute stroll away. Paul could not have been far, however: he was back at the Ritz at 10:08. Security cameras captured Paul parking his car, walking the corridors and briefing Dodi and Diana--and showing no sign of impairment.

Yet his blood alcohol reportedly tested at .187 grams per deciliter of blood at one lab and .175 at another. In most people that level means drunk--staggering, word-slurring drunk. It is also more than triple the .05 that French law defines as intoxicated. The tests will be repeated to be sure they measure Paul's blood alcohol, not the contents of a ruptured stomach. But if the numbers hold up, they suggest one of two possibilities. Paul might have been drinking, and drinking heavily, during the two hours he spent with French and British security agents between his arrival at the Ritz and 12:21, when he drove Diana and Dodi away. Or he was already impaired at 10 but did not seem so--even to Diana and Dodi, who trusted him with their lives.

Even if a drunken driver was slaloming around motorbike-riding paparazzi, it is not clear that three lives had to be lost. Auto-safety experts say that if the support pillars in the tunnel had been edged by a guardrail, the car would have glanced off, causing even the unbelted passengers (only Rees-Jones wore a safety belt) just minor injuries. In fact, Diana was alive for hours after the crash. The first police reached the scene at 12:30. Fending off paparazzi, they peered into the car and immediately called in emergency crews, who began administering first aid within minutes. Paramedics threaded an air tube connected to a ventilator down Diana's throat, and a policeman kept talking to her and tapping her cheek to keep her conscious. But even though rescuers carry hydraulic shears able to cut apart a limo in minutes, the princess was trapped inside the wreckage for an hour. That may have been what finally doomed her. By the time she reached Pitie Salpetriere, at 2 a.m., internal injuries had sent her into cardiac arrest.

This week investigators will test Paul's blood again for alcohol. They also hope to talk to bodyguard Rees-Jones, probably the one person who knows who ordered Paul to drive at an estimated 85 miles per hour, whether he seemed impaired and what pursuing photographers--or other vehicles--did to the Mercedes. From what officials know so far, changing even a single link in the chain that led to the tragedy--no paparazzi, a sober driver, safety belts, a guardrail--could have averted it. The accident, in other words, did not have to be.

At first the world held the paparazzi responsible, but then lab tests indicated that the driver may have been too drunk to handle the Mercedes. Did the photographers cause the crash, or should Henri Paul and the Ritz share the blame.?

Did the driver drink too much before he got the call?

3:30 p.m. Henri Paul and Dodi's regular chauffeur meet Dodi, Diana and their entourage at Le Bourget airport, near Paris.

4 p.m. Paul takes luggage and staff members to Dodi's apartment, then returns to the Ritz.

7:05 p.m. Paul goes off duty after Dodi and Diana leave the Ritz and head for Dodi's apartment.

7:05-10 p.m. Paul left the Ritz, but where he spent these three hours is still uncertain.

10:00 p.m. Paul is called back to work when Dodi and Diana return unannounced. Fayed spokespeople say Paul did not appear to be drunk.

12:21 a.m. Henri Paul climbs behind the wheel for the last time.

Ten paparazzi are under "official investigation" for their actions before and after the fatal crash. Two charges are possible in connection with the three deaths: involuntary homicide and failure to assist persons in danger. Involuntary homicide is similar to manslaughter in the U.S. The "failure to assist" law requires passersby to provide "reasonable assistance" (such as calling paramedics) when coming upon someone at risk of death or bodily harm. There are no similar obligations to assist accident victims in the U.S. criminal code. Conviction on each charge carries a maximum penalty of five years in jail and a fine of up to $82,000.

It is unclear how intoxicated Henri Paul might have been; the Fayed family is challenging reports of high blood alcohol concentrations (BAC). A survey of the generic links between drinking and car accidents:

APPROXIMATE BLOOD-ALCOHOL CONCENTRATION AS GRAMS OF ALCOHOL
PER DECILITER OF BLOOD FOR A 170-POUND MAN. ALCOHOL AFFECTS
INDIVIDUALS DIFFERENTLY--BAC PER DRINK WOULD BE HIGHER FOR WOMEN
AND FOR LIGHTER MEN.

Legend:
A - DRINKS CONSUMED IN ONE HOUR
(1 DRINK = 1 GLASS OF WINE
1 CAN OF BEER OR
1 SHOT OF LIQUOR)
B - BAC
C - THE LEGAL LIMIT/DRIVER'S BAC
D - POSSIBLE EFFECTS
E - FATAL ACCIDENTS

A - 2 DRINKS
B - 0.02
C - Sweden
D - Mild feelings of warmth and relaxation. Driver's attention
may wander.
E - 1.2 TIMES MORE LIKELY


A - 3 DRINKS
B - 0.05
C - Belgium, Finland, France, Greece, the Netherlands, Norway,
Portugal
D - Slower reactions, trouble making rational decisions about
ability to drive
E - 4 TIMES MORE LIKELY


A - 4 DRINKS
B - 0.08
C - Austria, Britain, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Ireland,
some U.S. states
D - Judgment, coordination impaired. Speed control and steering
become difficult.
E - 10 TIMES MORE LIKELY


A - 5 DRINKS
B - 0.10
C - Most U.S. states
D - Clumsiness and delayed reactions make even normal traffic
conditions dangerous
E - 20 TIMES MORE LIKELY

A - 8 DRINKS
B - 0.18
C - Henri Paul at the time of the accident, based on initial
reports of laboratory results
D - Blurred vision, poor motor control, confusion make safe
driving virtually impossible
E - 300 TIMES MORE LIKELY

SOURCES: NATL. INSTITUTE ON ALCOHOL ABUSE AND ALCOHOLISM, NATL. HWY. TRAFFIC SAFETY ADMIN. AND BUREAU REPORTS. RESEARCH BY THOMAS HAYDEN.

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