THE DOSSIER ON DIANA’S CRASH – TIME

31 Jan 2015 | Author: | Comments Off on THE DOSSIER ON DIANA’S CRASH – TIME
Mercedes S 280

THE DOSSIER ON DIANA’S CRASH

The saga remains a tale of two cities. In London last week Princess Diana was the renewed subject of tabloid headlines as the latest edition of a biography went on sale–an autobiography, it turns out, offering candid and often biting descriptions of her life with the royals, as divulged by her collaborator Andrew Morton. The Windsors and the Spencers were appalled, as were the British media.

But however scandalized the public may have been over Morton’s breach of Diana’s confidence, the book flew out of London stores. In Paris there was no room for soap opera or sentiment. French investigators were focused on finding the truth about her death in shards of metal, bits of glass and scratches of paint, in dusty stacks of depositions and in the cold physics of trajectory, velocity and momentum.

Such were the preoccupations of Judge Herve Stephan as he walked with a dozen police investigators into the empty, neon-lit Place de l’Alma tunnel. They converged on the spot where, just 30 days earlier, a black Mercedes S-280 had spun out of control and crashed headlong into the tunnel’s 13th support pillar, killing Diana, her companion Dodi Fayed and their driver, and injuring their bodyguard.

Last Monday at 9:20 p.m. a flatbed truck backed slowly into the tunnel bearing the grotesquely gnarled black hulk that has etched itself into the world’s collective consciousness as Diana’s death car. With the help of a crane, workers placed the Mercedes in three separate positions: on the right lane near the tunnel entrance, where the car lost control; against the 13th pillar, which had left a cookie-cutter imprint in the car’s front end; and nosed up to the right-hand wall, where the car had spun to a stop.

Three cars were sent through the tunnel to act out various scenarios. Other cars were driven through the opposite lane to determine exactly what witnesses could have seen from that vantage point. But the session last week was just a warm-up for the full-blown re-enactment that will most likely start, like Diana’s fatal last ride, at the Ritz Hotel.

It will feature an identical Mercedes S-280 accompanied by the 10 paparazzi who are suspected of contributing to the crash by their pursuit. Judicial sources say the main re-enactment is still weeks away.

One of its main objectives will be to test the hypothesis that a second car may have been involved in the accident. In the hours after the crash, investigators found taillight fragments belonging to a Fiat Uno just inside the tunnel entrance, about 197 ft. from the main crash site. Last week police sources said that spectroscopic analysis of the paint samples taken from scratches on the Mercedes’ right side showed that the paint could have come from a Fiat Uno.

It may be another week before experts complete their analysis and confirm the results. But investigators were leaning toward the theory that Diana and Dodi’s car may have sideswiped a smaller, slow-moving vehicle before careening out of control.

One witness who might have answered that question, injured bodyguard Trevor Rees-Jones, 29, still has no memory of the final moments before the crash. Following his second interrogation last week, the former paratrooper was helicoptered back to Britain to continue his convalescence in London. French investigators may go there to question him again in a couple of weeks. But experts say there is only a slight chance that he will regain his memory of the critical instants.

In the absence of his firsthand account, investigators can only sort through the physical evidence and more than 1,000 pages of testimony, much of it contradictory, to seek the precise cause of the accident. Based on interviews with eyewitnesses, experts, lawyers and sources close to the investigation, TIME has put together an exclusive account of what is known at this point about the key questions facing the French magistrates.

THE SECOND CAR. At least four eyewitnesses have described a slow-moving car driving ahead of the Mercedes in the right lane of the express road before it entered the tunnel at 12:25 a.m. on Aug. 31. Two off-duty chauffeurs standing near the tunnel entrance heard the roar of the motor as the Mercedes downshifted and accelerated.

Directly in front of the speeding vehicle, they said, was a dark-colored sedan moving at normal speed. (The speed limit in the tunnel is 30 m.p.h.) They saw the Mercedes swerve into the left lane in an attempt to pass the car. Once the two vehicles entered the tunnel, these witnesses lost sight of them. But they immediately heard a loud crash followed by the droning of an automobile horn, caused by the weight of the driver’s body on the wheel.

Meanwhile, a man and woman driving through the tunnel in the opposite, eastbound direction also reported seeing a dark car in front of the Mercedes. There was a sudden screech of brakes. The man heard a small impact, then saw the Mercedes skid directly into a support pillar in the middle of the tunnel, leading him to think the car had sideswiped the other vehicle and lost control.

The theory of a collision with a second car is supported by evidence collected just inside the tunnel entrance on the night of the accident. In addition to the Fiat Uno taillight fragments, investigators found pieces of the Mercedes’ headlight and of the plastic housing of its right-rearview mirror. This debris was found near a 62-ft.-long skid mark that swerves from the right into the left lane.

A short distance beyond that is the beginning of a 105-ft.-long skid mark that leads directly into the 13th pillar. All of which tends to support the theory of an initial collision followed by a loss of control.

From the earliest days of the investigation, says a judicial source, the idea of such a collision has been a fundamental scenario. Investigators treated the theory with caution, however, reasoning that a small, flimsy car such as a Fiat Uno would have been sent flying by a Mercedes going an estimated 70 to 90 m.p.h. After all, they said, the Fiat debris could have been left on the road by an earlier accident.

If further lab work on the paint narrows the possible range of cars down to a Fiat Uno, police should be able to identify the precise year and place of the Fiat’s manufacture. They could then use registration data to try to locate the Fiat’s owner; whoever is found to have been driving the car could be charged with fleeing the scene of an accident, even if he was not the cause of it. Says a Justice Ministry expert: It might take a year, even two, but they will find that car–if it exists.

One important point: police do not believe a photographer drove the still mysterious Fiat Uno, even though a paparazzo arrived at the scene in a Fiat Uno.

Another reason police have hesitated to commit to the second- car theory is that the slow-moving vehicle witnesses recalled may have been a gray Citroen BX, whose driver was questioned several hours after the accident. This young man reported hearing the squeal of brakes behind him as he drove west through the tunnel at a moderate pace. In his rearview mirror he saw a black Mercedes skidding toward him at high speed.

He accelerated to avoid a rear-end collision and saw the Mercedes hit the central pillar, then spin into the opposite wall. According to this witness, whose car showed no accident damage, there was no other vehicle between him and the Mercedes.

THE ROLE OF THE PAPARAZZI. To date, nine photographers and one photo-agency motorcycle driver have been formally placed under investigation on charges of manslaughter and failure to assist persons in danger, a felony under French law. Police are still looking for other photographers believed to have fled the accident scene. Testimony on the photographers’ role in provoking the accident varies widely.

Most of the paparazzi say the Mercedes left them hundreds of yards behind after its turn from the Place de la Concorde onto the riverside expressway leading to the Alma tunnel, but several witnesses claim that some of them were right behind the car or even in front of it. Sorting out these contradictory accounts is one of the investigation’s main challenges.

At least four witnesses interrogated by police immediately after the accident reported seeing a large motorcycle following closely behind the Mercedes. One of them spoke of a motorcycle with two passengers, a possible reference to photographer Romuald Rat and his driver, Stephane Darmon, on their Honda 650. A number of the photographers admit to following the Mercedes aboard motorcycles, scooters and cars.

But they all claim to have fallen far behind when driver Henri Paul accelerated in the final straightaway. (At his estimated speed of 70 to 90 m.p.h. Paul was covering between 102 ft. and 132 ft. per sec.) One close-range witness of the accident said a motorcycle following the Mercedes slowed down, passed the wrecked car, then accelerated and continued on its way. Police have yet to determine just how close the paparazzi were to the Mercedes in the final moments, but they now doubt that any of them actually touched it before the crash.

THE CRASH SCENE. The first photographer to arrive, apparently, was Rat, 24, with Darmon, 32, joined almost at once by Christian Martinez, 41, and Serge Arnal, 35, in Arnal’s black Fiat Uno. (Police inspection showed no damage to the Fiat.) The next seems to have been Serge Benamou, 44, on a Piaggio motor scooter. The others arrived during the following 10 to 15 minutes.

Hailed by passersby while patrolling in the area, the first two police officers reached the scene within five minutes of the accident. In their official report, the officers described the scene thus: Numerous people, mainly photographers, were shooting pictures of the right rear of the car, whose door was open. One of the officers rushed up and attempted to push back the photographers, who offered resistance.

They were virulent, pushy and continued to take photos, intentionally preventing him from bringing aid to the victims. One of them pushed #91;the officer#93; back and declared, ‘You piss me off. Let me do my work. At Sarajevo at least the cops let us work.’

Police and eyewitness reports and even the accounts of some of the photographers agree on this point: the paparazzi were in a state of excitement bordering on frenzy. Two of them in particular got into a heated argument, with one photographer reportedly shouting at another, It’s your fault! One of them, described by witnesses as among the most aggressive, grabbed the arm of one of the police officers, who was trying to move him back from the scene.

As unsavory as their picture-taking binge may have been, the primary legal question is whether the photographers conspicuously failed to aid persons in danger, as required by French law. One big strike against them is that with one exception, none of them attempted to call for help, though all were equipped with cell phones. Their almost unanimous response to this charge is that they heard or assumed someone else had already called.

According to police records, the first call to the fire department’s emergency medical unit was made at 12:26 by an anonymous woman using a borrowed cell phone. The police had not yet arrived. The first medical worker to arrive was Christian Mailliez, 36, an off-duty emergency-service doctor who happened to be driving through the opposite lane of the tunnel on the way back from a birthday party. There was a lot of smoke, he told TIME and CNN in a joint interview.

People were speaking loudly. There was a kind of panic, like one usually finds at accident scenes. Dressed in a white T shirt and white jeans that were soon spattered with the princess’ blood, Mailliez put an oxygen mask over her face while a former volunteer fireman supported Rees-Jones’ bloody head in his hands. Mailliez said the paparazzi had not hindered him in his work.

He left once the first emergency firefighters’ unit arrived at 12:32 a.m. about seven minutes after the accident.

Lawyers for the photographers say they expect both the manslaughter and nonassistance charges against their clients to be dropped before the case goes to trial. Judge Stephan is unlikely to take any such step until the investigation is further along. It is possible that the photographers will be found to have different degrees of culpability.

Already the judge has singled out two photographers, Rat and Martinez, for harsh treatment. Both men had to pay bail and had their press cards suspended.

Mercedes S 280

THE CHOICE OF DRIVER. Lab results released last week indicate that Henri Paul, the Ritz’s 41-year-old deputy security director, had been in a state of moderate chronic alcoholism for at least eight days. Tests of hair samples, moreover, show that Paul had been regularly ingesting Prozac (since May) and tiapridal (since July), a combination of drugs commonly prescribed for the treatment of alcoholism.

Earlier tests had shown that Paul had drunk the equivalent of nine shots of whiskey before taking the wheel of the Mercedes. How could his state have escaped the attention of the people around him? Rees-Jones, interrogated before his departure for Britain this week, told investigators that Paul seemed just fine that night.

The other Fayed-family bodyguard on duty that night, Alexander (Kez) Wingfield, 32, has also said Paul behaved normally and did not smell of alcohol even at close range. Both bodyguards told investigators that it would have been their duty to prevent Paul from driving had they had the slightest suspicion that he was drunk.

But several of the photographers declared Paul’s behavior bizarre. He emerged from the Ritz on several occasions to chat with the paparazzi and even told them the couple would be coming out after dinner. He was so voluble at least two photographers suspected he had been drinking.

Another source who knows Paul well and was with him that night found him chattier than usual.

Whose idea was it, then, to put Paul in the driver’s seat that night? During his initial questioning by Judge Stephan on Sept. 19, Rees-Jones said it was Dodi who called Henri Paul so he could drive us from the rear of the hotel.

It was Dodi as well, said Rees-Jones, who changed the plan and decided to send his regular chauffeur, Philippe Dourneau, and another driver off in two decoy vehicles while Paul whisked the couple away in a different car. Rees-Jones reiterated those statements last week, and fellow bodyguard Wingfield confirms that Dodi made these fateful decisions. But it is also clear that other senior Ritz officials were aware of the plan to use an extra Mercedes for a surreptitious getaway and even took part in organizing it.

THE MERCEDES. Shortly after the tragedy, there was a flurry of articles in the French press, quoting anonymous Ritz chauffeurs, claiming that the Mercedes S-280 had recently suffered a serious accident and had to be totally rebuilt. The accident story is false, says Jean-Francois Musa, 38, manager of the Etoile Limousine company, which leased the car to the Ritz. But he told TIME it is true that the car was stolen in front of the posh Taillevent restaurant on April 20 and was found in a Paris suburb on May 6.

The car was apparently stolen by professionals for parts, says Musa. Mainly small electronic motors, switches and circuits. Devices ripped out included those that controlled the windows, power steering and antilock braking system.

The car was repaired by a Paris Mercedes dealer at a cost of more than $20,000, Musa reports, adding that at the time it was totally checked out and showed no mechanical problems. On July 7 it passed its annual police inspection.

Yet given Paul’s sudden spectacular loss of control, the question arises whether some defect in the steering or braking system may have been at fault. The initial postaccident inspection by police experts showed the car to have been in good mechanical condition. But the final verdict on that question may have to wait until investigators have completely dismantled and inspected the car part by part.

In the past few days, experts reportedly sent Judge Stephan a series of observations about the car’s braking system.

DIANA’S INJURIES. Horrific internal injuries may have doomed the princess from the moment of impact. But the amount of time that elapsed between the accident and her arrival at the hospital–more than 1 1/2 hours–could have been a factor in sealing her fate.

With her left pulmonary vein ripped, her heart was pumping blood by the quart into her chest cavity. That fact was not apparent to the first witnesses and medical workers on the scene. What they found was an elegantly coiffed woman sitting on the floor of the car with her legs up on the rear seat, leaning against the back of the front passenger seat.

She was bleeding from a gash on her forehead. Blood was also flowing from her ear, nose and mouth. But she was conscious and moving.

Among the first bystanders to arrive, an off-duty chauffeur told her softly in English, Don’t move. Help is coming, as she tried to sit up and get out of the car. Another early arrival, a Portuguese cleaning woman, told TIME that Diana’s head and bust were leaning on the window.

She was moaning very loudly, saying, ‘Aye! Aye! Aye!’ Her cries reverberated through the tunnel. The princess tried to speak and was once heard to murmur, My God. But no direct witness reports her saying anything coherent.

The first two policemen on the scene found her semiconscious. One of them tried to keep her awake by talking to her and tapping on her cheek.

Once the emergency units arrived, it took them 30 to 45 minutes to extract Diana from the vehicle and stabilize her with intubation, oxygen and treatment for shock. At 1:18 a.m. she was placed in an ambulance. At the doctor’s insistence, the ambulance proceeded slowly so as not to aggravate the injuries.

Thus it took some 40 minutes to reach the Pitie-Salpetriere hospital instead of the usual 10 minutes. On arrival at 2:05 a.m. the princess was in cardiac arrest. Doctors opened her chest and found massive internal bleeding from the ruptured vein.

Although they sutured the wound and administered heart massage, no cardiac activity could be re-established. She was pronounced dead at 4:15 a.m.

The medical examiner’s report attributed her death to internal hemorrhaging due to a crushed thorax and to a phenomenon of deceleration which caused a rupture of the left pulmonary vein. Her other wounds included cuts on the forehead and over the lip, a fractured right arm, cuts on the right thigh and the back of the left thigh, plus bruises on the hands and feet.

Judge Stephan probably has months to go before he buckles up his dossier and decides whether to send the case to trial. But when the work of the investigators is done–whatever the attendant circumstances, whatever the role of the paparazzi, whatever the truth about the second car–they are likely to determine that this was a road accident caused by very familiar villains: speed, alcohol and bad judgment. An all-too-ordinary tragedy for an uncommon princess.

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