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British Royals

26 years later: A look back on the day the people lost “their princess”

Another 31 August and another year since the untimely passing of Diana, Princess of Wales. She was known as “the people’s princess,” and her death took a toll on people worldwide. As another sombre anniversary passes, Royal Central looks at how that fateful day played out – hour by hour.

At 11:30 a.m. local time, Diana and her rumoured boyfriend, Dodi Al-Fayed, were leaving a yacht in Sardinia when they made their way to Al-Fayed’s plane, waiting to take them to Paris. The plane would take off at 1:50 p.m. A few hours later, at 3:20 p.m., the couple arrived to a dozen photographers waiting at the airport at Le Bourget. They got into their car with a bodyguard and Dodi’s regular driver, Philippe Dourneau.

Following the high-profile couple, Henri Paul, the deputy head of security for the Ritz Hotel in Paris, drove a second car with others from the couple’s party. They then headed to Villa Windsor, the former home of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Following a brief tour of the Villa, they left for the Hotel Ritz Paris, which Dodi’s father, Mohamed Al-Fayed, owned.

Diana and Dodi went through the back of the building up to the Imperial Suite, where she would call her two sons, Princes William and Harry, who were vacationing at Balmoral Castle in Scotland with their father. In an interview for the 20th anniversary of her death, the boys said they remember the call but regret rushing their mum off the phone so they could continue what they’d been doing. Diana would then make a call to her medium, Rita Rogers.

Sometime between 5:40 and 6:30 p.m., Diana left for a hair appointment while Dodi went to a jeweller near the hotel. His family claims he was going to pick up an engagement ring.

At some point, Diana called journalist Richard Kay, a friend and royal reporter for the Daily Mail. Kay said the Princess told him how she decided to “radically change her life.” This included completing her obligations to charities before wanting to formally withdraw from public life that November. As for the ring, Dodi’s family said he wanted to propose that night, whereas Diana had told a friend she expected the ring to “firmly” go on her right hand.

Around 7 p.m., the couple left The Ritz through the rear entrance and were driven to his apartment near the Arc de Triomphe. They planned to stay at the apartment awhile before going to dinner at Benoit Paris with no plan to return to The Ritz that night. Henri Paul was off duty as the couple hung out at the apartment. During this time, he went to the bar alone for a few drinks.

By 8:51 p.m., Diana and Dodi left with plans to go to dinner, but because of the paparazzi following them, they instructed the chauffeur to drive to The Ritz instead. About an hour later, they entered the front of the hotel and went to the L’Espadon restaurant. Dodi became suspicious that some photographers were posing as restaurant guests and asked the food be brought to the Imperial Suite.

At 10:08 p.m., Francois Tendil, the hotel’s night security manager, called Paul back to the hotel. In addition to the alcohol, it was later learned he had two prescription drugs in his system – one for depression and the other for alcoholism. At 10:20 p.m., it’s believed Dodi considered a plan to sneak out the back of the hotel and go to his apartment. A few minutes later, after meeting with the night manager, Paul went outside in front of the hotel and spoke to the paparazzi on at least three occasions. One person who heard Paul talking said he was taunting them and allegedly told them when Diana would leave.

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It was at 12:20 a.m. on the morning of 31 August, with bodyguard Trevor Rees-Jones in the front seat and Paul behind the wheel, that the couple got into the back seat of the black Mercedes and left the hotel. Paul – reportedly called out to photographers, “Don’t try to follow; you will never catch us!” According to a later investigation, Dodi hatched a plan to sneak out the back while a decoy car left the front of the hotel. Photographers caught on, which would ultimately lead to the deadly crash.

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At 12:23 a.m., the car, which was going at 136 km/h, clipped a white Fiat Uno at the entrance to the Pont de L’Alma tunnel before it crashed into the 13th pillar of the tunnel. Some say the impact sounded like an explosion.

Dodi and Paul died instantly. Rees-Jones, who only just moments before put on his safety belt, was left seriously injured. Diana was not wearing a seatbelt. Dr Frédéric Maillez said he was driving on the opposite side when he saw the crash and attempted to help those inside. He says Rees-Jones was yelling while Diana was on her knees facing the seat she’d been sitting in – he did not recognise her. As he gave what aid he could, Diana asked what happened and complained of pain from her injuries, lowered her head, and said nothing else. Emergency workers used an electric chainsaw to get her out of the wreckage.

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At 1:20 a.m., French emergency services policies require trying to stabilise a patient before they are transported to the hospital. After she was extracted, Diana went into cardiac arrest. After 18 minutes of CPR, her heartbeat became more regular, and she was put into an ambulance and onto a respirator. The hospital was a six-kilometre drive away. One block away from the hospital entrance, her blood pressure dropped dramatically, the ambulance stopped, and doctors gave her dopamine.

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Nearly two hours after the accident, at 2:01 a.m., Diana was rushed into emergency surgery upon arriving at Pitié-Salpétrière Hospital. About a half hour later, surgeons opened her chest to try and repair the damage. At that time, they discovered her heart was displaced from the left side of her chest to the right due to the force of the accident. The force also caused a small tear in the upper left pulmonary vein. On top of the heart damage, she had a dislocated arm, damaged ribs, a cut on her head and thigh.

At 4 a.m., despite hours of surgery, Diana was pronounced dead. Rees-Jones would live to tell his tale of his long road to recovery.

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Diana then took her final flight at 6 p.m. that same day when Prince Charles, accompanied by Diana’s sisters, Landy Jane Fellows and Lady Sarah McCorquodale, left the hospital with her casket. About an hour later, the plane touched down at RAF Northolt, where a ceremonial guard carried the coffin draped in the Royal Standard to a waiting hearse. As tributes poured in, the Royal Family was left to decide on plans for the Princess’s funeral.

Diana’s funeral was on 6 September at Westminster Abbey. She was then taken to her childhood home of Althrop Estate in Northampton to be laid to rest in a private ceremony.

About author

My name is Sydney Zatz and I am a University of Iowa graduate. I graduated with a degree in journalism and sports studies, and a minor in sport and recreation management. A highlight of my college career was getting the chance to study abroad in London and experiencing royal history firsthand. I have a passion for royals, royal history, and journalism, which led me to want to write for Royal Central.