'Disbelief, blame and conspiracy': What it was like to cover Diana's death

Diana, Princess of Wales, was only 36 when the vehicle carrying her and her lover crashed in a Paris tunnel as it sped away from photographers. Now, 25 years later, CTV National News Chief International Correspondent Paul Workman recounts the scene in Paris when he arrived to cover the tragedy.

The Princess was just 36 when the limousine carrying her and her lover Dodi al-Fayed crashed in the tunnel below the bridge as it sped away from photographers who were chasing it on motorbikes.

The phone ranged around two o’clock in the morning. I was on a family holiday in Ottawa. Our daughter Caitlin was the first to get to it. She was 15 at the time.

“Hello. It’s the CBC calling from Toronto. Can I speak to Paul, please?”

“Don’t you know it’s the middle of the night,” said Caitlin, full of teenage snarkiness.

“Princess Diana just died. Can I please speak to Paul?”

She woke me up.

It was really a story of two cities, Paris and London, historically drawn together by a tragedy so enormous, so deafening, it rattles around the world today with as much intensity, intrigue and guessing as it did 25 years ago.

We are caught in a Diana time machine. Her modest Ford Escort, which she drove before marrying Prince Charles, sold this week at auction for US$850,000.

“The woman who doesn’t die,” as an American friend said to me this week.

The CBC wanted to put me on a supersonic Concorde flight out of New York. The kitchen telephone was hot in my hands as they tried to work out details, finally running out of time and connections. We returned to Paris that night on a ticket that had been booked weeks earlier. I remember thinking, “I need to sleep” because I knew I wasn’t going to get any for a while.

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Paris was swirling and boiling in a convulsion of disbelief, blame and conspiracy. Rumors and headlines that made your eyes widen. For journalists, racing around frantically looking for leads, it felt like being in a version of the same high-speed chase that killed Diana.

Who was driving the car? Who were the paparazzi chasing her into the tunnel? It was wild and almost hysterical. There were unfounded rumors that she was pregnant with Dodi Fayed’s child. The Royal Family had killed her before she could marry a Muslim.

Details began to leak that Henri Paul, the driver, was drunk and traces of prescription drugs had been found in his bloodstream. He was the deputy head of security at the Hôtel Ritz, where Diana and Fayed were staying.

Security cameras recorded the couple standing at a back entrance, waiting for Paul to whisk them away in his Mercedes-Benz W140 S-Class. A decoy vehicle left from the front of the hotel where 30 reporters and photographers had been waiting.

We rushed to Paul’s Paris flat, took video from the outside, tried to talk to his neighbours, to people in the bar next door who might confirm that he drank a lot. Deep research. It was useless.

We rented a Mercedes and somehow strapped a camera to it and drove through the Pont de l’Alma tunnel at speed. Gimmicky, but everybody was doing it.

And we subjected the crowd above the tunnel, at all hours of the day and night, to a barrage of cameras and microphones, intruding on people’s very real sense of grief. A statue that had nothing to do with Diana was suddenly transformed into a shrine, buried in flowers and covered in messages of love and loss.

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Off in the distance was the Eiffel Tower and unknown below, the tunnel’s thirteenth pillar, which the Mercedes hit at an estimated speed of 105 km/h. We drove through a couple of times, straining to see, and film, anything that looked like evidence of a deadly crash.

The shock that consumed Paris shifted to the mourning and sorrow that overwhelmed London, and all of the United Kingdom. The images of two young princes walking behind their mother’s coffin are indelible, conveying a sense of pure sadness, at least to me, as the father of a teenager at the time. It was something we could all associate with—even a royal princess can be killed in a car accident.

I think the only other image that will endure in the same way is that of the Queen, sitting alone, dressed in black and wearing a face mask, as she buried her husband Philip during the pandemic.

Diana of course became the people’s princess, mother of a future king, still an object of fascination and adoration. And people return to that tunnel in Paris, drawn by the tragedy that unfolded there 25 years ago on the last day of August.


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