Horror In the Night

IN THE WEE HOURS OF SUNDAY mornings in Paris, when tourists throng the Champs-Elysees and locals fill the cafEs of the Marais and the Latin Quarter, the wide streets that run past chic apartment buildings along the Seine are nearly deserted. At this hour the Cours la Reine, a tree-lined promenade, would be a straight, fast shot away from the center of the city even in its original, early-1600s design. But in modern times city planners made it even straighter and faster: they split the road so its inner two lanes dip through tunnels to avoid the traffic lights at cross streets. If your car is fast, and your driving sure, this is the perfect route for a getaway. And a getaway is what Diana, Princess of Wales, and her friend Emad (Dodi) Fayed had clearly intended.

They had flown from Sardinia to Paris on Saturday afternoon aboard a private jet after 10 days together on the French Riviera, 10 days in which their embraces on Dodi's yacht were fair game for any photographer with a long lens and a lookout post in St-Tropez. They dined, fashionably late, in a private salon at the Ritz, one of several trophy purchases--others being London's Harrods department store and the Paris home of the late Duke and Duchess of Windsor--made in recent years by Dodi's father, the billionaire Mohamed Al Fayed. At the Ritz, the privacy of even the public rooms draws the celebrity guests as surely as does the ethereal lightness of the tartelette de fruits exotiques. The paparazzi don't get past the door. They do, however, lurk in the Place Vendome out front.

So after dinner, a few minutes past midnight, Diana and Dodi slipped out the back, into a waiting Mercedes that belonged to the Ritz. One of the hotel security men took the wheel. A bodyguard rode shotgun while Dodi and the princess shared the back seat. Their apparent destination: Al Fayed's town house, some four miles away. Peeling out from the hotel's rear entrance on the Rue Cambon, which is closed to mere mortals but open to the son of the owner, they made for the illuminated fountains and obelisk of the Place de la Concorde. The chase was on: at least one motorcycle, carrying a photographer, was eating their exhaust. After a quick right onto the Cours la Reine, the Mercedes followed the road into one tunnel, rose again to street level, then plunged again, this time beneath the Pont de l'Alma, just across the Seine from the Eiffel Tower and down the hill from the Arc de Triomphe. By now another motorcycle, a motor scooter and at least one car were in pursuit. It was 35 minutes after midnight. As square pillars separating westbound from eastbound traffic loomed into view, the driver suddenly, somehow, lost control just as he swerved left entering the tunnel. About one third of the way through the tunnel, with a bang and a sickening squeal of tires audible to tourists strolling along the river, the car slammed into a pillar at a speed police estimate at 85 miles per hour. It ricocheted off the opposite wall. The entire front of the sedan accordioned into the front seat. The roof collapsed to the level of the front passengers' knees. And as if in cruel mockery of the limits of technology, the two front airbags deployed.

The crash killed Dodi and the driver instantly. But according to the first news reports, the princess suffered only a broken arm and a concussion. Within 10 minutes an ambulance arrived at the horrific scene. The crew spent an hour trying to free Diana. Finally they rushed her to Pitie Salpetriere Hospital, four miles away, where Diana was immediately wheeled into emergency surgery. For two hours the medical team tried to save her, performing internal and external cardiac massage in an unflagging effort to get her stopped heart to resume pumping. But her left pulmonary vein had sustained a major wound, and she was bleeding internally. At 6 a.m., as the city lights of Paris were twinkling off and early worshipers were preparing for sunrise mass, doctors made the announcement: shortly before 4 a.m., Diana, 36, had been pronounced dead of cardiac arrest. She had never regained consciousness after the accident. The public announcement had been delayed two hours so that Prince Charles could awaken William and Harry at Balmoral Castle and tell them that the mother on whom they doted, the mother who took them to chow down at hamburger joints and to visit homeless shelters when almost everyone else in their lives thought mainly of palaces and polo, had died in the night.

The family, and everyone who was still enchanted by the princess--despite the ugly, drawn-out divorce, despite the tell-all exposEs, despite the revelations of affairs both before and after her separation from Charles--barely had time to recognize their grief before sorrow was overtaken by fury. According to two American tourists who had been walking along the Seine and ran to the mouth of the tunnel when they heard the crash, at least one professional photographer was shooting the wreckage--and its dead or dying occupants--within 15 seconds of the accident. One motorcycle, perhaps more, had been carefully laid on its side near the Mercedes. ""The car was being chased by photographers on motorcycles, which could have caused the accident,'' said a spokesman for Paris's Prefecture of Police. At least seven photographers were being held by the police, and French authorities had launched a criminal investigation into whether Diana had been killed, if only indirectly, by paparazzi. The mere possibility touched off a storm of invective. ""Scum'' was one of the more polite descriptions of the reporters and photographers who pursued Diana as relentlessly as any pack of hounds does a fox, and there were calls for overhauling laws that grant the press an almost unlimited right to pursue anyone, anytime, anyhow. Diana's brother, the ninth Earl Spencer, issued a statement saying that every ""editor of every publication that has paid for intrusive and exploitative photographs of her ... has blood on their hands.''

In all the worlds the princess touched--the worlds of fashion and music, the worlds of causes ranging from land mines to AIDS, worlds that had virtually nothing in common except Diana's luminous presence--reaction to her death was suffused with an almost numbed shock. Vacationing on Martha's Vineyard, President Clinton described himself as ""deeply saddened'' by Diana's death. In a statement from Buckingham Palace, Queen Elizabeth and Prince Charles said they were ""deeply shocked and distressed by this terrible news.''

The princess died while England slept, but when morning dawned Brits awoke to Union Jacks at half-mast and the BBC broadcasting, repeatedly, the suddenly elegiac ""God Save the Queen.'' Teenage clubbers, hearing the news as they staggered out of their post-midnight haunts, became suddenly subdued. ""We bought flowers and came down here [at 4 a.m.] because we couldn't even think about sleeping,'' said Chris Rawstron, one of a steady stream of mourners, many in tears, laying flowers at Buckingham Palace. ""I'm not much of a royalist,'' said a young woman, ""but it's so absurd that the best of the lot had to go first.'' ""She gave people hope,'' said Solomon, 25, an Ethiopian who for two years has lived at Centrepoint, a London charity for the homeless that Diana supported. ""When she came to visit Centrepoint, I think she helped people feel that it was worth living because there was someone out there who cared about them.'' Other mourners mutely clutched the black wrought-iron gates of the palace, waiting for news; at Harrods, a scribbled note left outside bore the single word ""sorry.''

The tragedy fell exactly one year and three days after a British court handed down the final decree of divorce from Prince Charles and, with it, Diana's new life. The divorce unshackled her from the title little girls dream of but which Diana had found to be a virtual prison: ""Her Royal Highness.'' With the honorific tossed out like one of the gowns she auctioned off in June, and no longer an official member of the royal family, Diana was able to set her own schedule and choose her own causes rather than have both imposed by Buckingham Palace. She could have remade herself as anything from a jet-setting party girl to the cloistered mother of the future king. But she chose nothing so one-dimensional. Ever the princess, she did not abandon those who took hope from her visits and drew strength from her support. Last month, as part of her campaign to ban land mines, she visited a shantytown outside Sarajevo to listen to children who had lost limbs to the weapons. (Her hope that it would be a purely humanitarian mission soured when she was quoted as calling the land-mine policy of Britain's previous government ""hopeless,'' a gaffe that ignited the expected harrumphs back in London about royals' meddling in politics.)

Diana's freedom from royal strictures went only so far, though. Her divorce decree prohibited her from taking her sons out of the country without the palace's permission, and never for very long. Although she yearned to escape the tabloids' scrutiny, and was sure she could have more freedom anywhere but in Britain, she was stuck. ""Any sane person would have left [Britain] long ago,'' she told Le Monde the week before her death. ""But I cannot. I have my sons.'' And although she won a $26 million settlement from Charles, it was clear that, if only in self-defense, she would need men whose wealth could protect her from a prying world. Someone had to pay the bodyguards; someone had to have the yacht with which to spirit the princess out of range of the zoom lenses.

Dodi Fayed, 41, was one such someone. British papers began to link them romantically only last month, when they were photographed embracing on Dodi's yacht in the Mediterranean (a shot that will eventually bring the photographer a reported $4.5 million). On Aug. 21 Diana and Dodi flew to St-Tropez for their third vacation together in five weeks. They had met nearly 10 years ago at Smith's Lawn, Windsor, when Dodi's polo team played, and beat, Prince Charles's. By then Dodi's father was well on his way to purchasing a string of British icons, starting with Harrods in 1985, a castle in Scotland and the Fulham pro-soccer club. After Royal Military College at Sandhurst, Dodi pursued a career on the financial side of Hollywood, parlaying family money into producer credits on films from ""Chariots of Fire'' to ""The Scarlet Letter.'' But Dodi was much better known for polo ponies and beautiful companions, including the model Kelly Fisher, who last month sued him for breach of contract--because, she said, he had promised to marry her before he took up with Diana.

Within hours of Diana's death, Charles boarded a Royal Air Force jet at Northolt, outside London, to fly to Paris with the princess's two sisters. They were expected to travel to SalpEtriEre and accompany Diana's body home. As the week began, her funeral arrangements were still uncertain. It was not clear whether the Princess of Wales would have a private funeral or a state ceremony, whose public pomp and majesty would stand as a tragic bookend to her storybook wedding. In her death as in her life, Diana straddled the world where fairy tales come true and the world where babies die of AIDS; she was The Princess, and she was of the people, and she was gone.

As she returned from a luxurious vacation on the French Riviera and looked forward to rejoining her two sons in Britain, Princess Diana's life was suddenly cut short inside a Paris tunnel. The events leading up to her death:

1 After dining at the Ritz Hotel, Princess Diana and her companion, Emad (Dodi) Fayed, left through a back door in an attempt to avoid press photographers.

2 They drove southwest toward Dodi's father's town house with several paparazzi in tow. At the wheel was a hotel security man; a bodyguard also accompanied them.

3 Chased by at least one photographer on a motorcycle, their Mercedes raced along the Cours la Reine and entered a tunnel beneath the Place de l'Alma.

4 Shortly after midnight, the car smashed into a concrete column at a speed of about 85 mph. It then bounced off a wall, flipping 180 degrees.

5 Fayed and the driver died instantly; Princess Diana and the bodyguard were rushed to the hospital in critical condition. Diana suffered massive lung and chest injuries. Doctors managed to close a wound to Diana's left pulmonary vein, but two hours of heart massage failed to revive her. She was pronounced dead at 4 a.m.