Diana Death Questions Remain
Mar. 02, 1998
PARIS (AP) _ Bouquets of flowers no longer rest against the 13th pillar of the Alma traffic tunnel. But just outside, the curious still can be found at any hour, peering down into the subterranean passage.
Or they stare at the Flame of Liberty, a statue to honor French-American ties that has become a makeshift shrine to Diana, Princess of Wales.
Six months after the car crash that killed the princess, her boyfriend Dodi Fayed and their driver, this plaza filled with hand-scrawled tributes and wilting flowers is still called the Place de l'Alma. But it has become, now and probably forever, Diana's place.
A bit farther east along the Seine, in the capital's main courthouse, two judges are trying to answer one question: How did this tragedy happen?
Aided by the prestigious criminal brigade of the Paris police, Herve Stephan and Marie-Christine Devidal have interviewed dozens of witnesses. They've compiled a dossier running into the thousands of pages. And a renowned police lab outside Paris is still testing the wrecked Mercedes S280 that carried the victims.
The probe is expected to last until late this year _ not unusual for a case of this magnitude in France, though certainly unusual for a traffic accident.
But when all the painstaking work is done, will there be answers? Witness accounts have been widely conflicting, and the man investigators hoped would be the best witness of all _ bodyguard Trevor Rees-Jones, sole survivor of the crash _ is only beginning to remember the actual accident after a series of sessions with a psychiatrist.
Rees-Jones said in an interview published Monday that Diana was conscious and talking immediately after the car crash, a statement that appears to conflict with French doctors who have said that she did not regain consciousness.
In his most extensive public comments since the crash, Rees-Jones also told the The Mirror tabloid that driver Henri Paul, who was also killed in the crash, did not appear to have been drinking. Tests have showed Paul was legally drunk.
Questions linger: What was the role of the paparazzi chasing the Mercedes that night? Was Paul's condition known to his employer _ the Ritz Hotel, owned by Dodi's father, Mohamed Al Fayed? Did Diana get adequate medical care? And finally, what about that mysterious Fiat Uno, and will its driver ever be found?
Al Fayed asks yet another question: Could this have been a conspiracy? At least a few notes at the Alma memorial include the angry charge: ``This was not an accident!''
In the end, though, it appears likely the final story will be mundane: a simple car crash, caused by a drunk driver, some bad decisions and a brutal dose of bad luck.
In the early hours of Aug. 31, six photographers and a press motorcyclist were arrested, strip-searched and detained for 48 hours. Three more were brought in later. All 10 remain under official investigation on two charges: manslaughter and failure to assist people in danger.
At the start, the photographers were the focus of enormous rage from a public eager to affix blame. Diana's brother accused them of killing her. Then, driver Paul's condition came to light, and evidence appeared to point away from the men.
Sources in the Paris prosecutor's office, speaking on condition of anonymity, have told The Associated Press that prosecutor Maud Coujard likely will soon recommend dropping the charge of manslaughter against all 10 men and the non-assistance charge against at least eight of them.
Photographers Romuald Rat and Christian Martinez have received the most attention. Rat reached into the car where Diana lay dying; he says he has medical training and was trying to take her pulse. And Martinez was said to have pushed police away, saying angrily: ``They let us work in Bosnia.'' But some witnesses, including the first doctor on the scene, say the paparazzi didn't interfere.
This much is certain: driver Paul, 41, a loyal Ritz employee, was drunk and on two prescription drugs, including Prozac, when he took the wheel.
Less certain is whether Ritz officials knew of Paul's condition that night, whether they knew he had a chronic problem, and whether they knew if he drank at the hotel bar before the fateful ride _ as some have told investigators.
If so, the Ritz could be liable in the crash, either criminally or in a civil case filed by victims' families. Many feel some action against the Ritz is inevitable.
Over the months, troubling details have leaked from the investigation. Among them: a police interview of a Ritz barman, who allegedly said Ritz managers knew Paul had a drinking problem, but pressured the barman not to divulge this ``for the good of the royal family.''
A friend of Paul's, Dominique Melo, told police that Paul would sometimes drink alone at home to get over a failed love affair, according to lawyers who've seen the case file.
Another possibly thorny problem for the Ritz: Paul didn't have the special chauffeur's license required to drive the Mercedes S280.
The most tantalizing element of the investigation _ the mysterious Fiat Uno _ also has been the most frustrating.
Though numerous witnesses have described a car coming into contact with the Mercedes just before it lost control, the accounts have been conflicting. Moreover, no witness actually saw the collision. Investigators have pored over the records of thousands of Fiat Unos and interviewed hundreds of owners _ with no apparent luck so far, despite some hopeful moments.
Based on witness accounts and physical evidence, including paint scrapes and shards of glass, investigators believe the speeding Mercedes did sideswipe a Fiat before crashing. But how did the small Fiat escape extensive damage from the much heavier Mercedes? Where did it go? And why hasn't the driver turned up yet?
Investigators believe the Fiat didn't belong to any of the photographers now under investigation. And they have virtually lost hope of finding it, sources close to the case tell the AP. Still, the search for the needle in the haystack goes on.
A former police commissioner conducting a private probe for Al Fayed raised a stir recently when he said a damaged Fiat Uno had been found, belonging to a photographer known to have tracked Diana in the past. But police said the car had been ruled out.
In a new book, authors Thomas Sancton and Scott MacLeod quote U.S. doctors as saying Diana would have had a better chance if taken to the hospital sooner, rather than given 30-45 minutes of on-site treatment.
The authors also question the wisdom of a slow ride to the hospital _ 40 minutes instead of the usual 10 _ for fear of bumping or jerking.
France's health minister recently conceded the French method was a subject of debate. But he said the issue was moot in this case because Diana's severe injuries doomed her from the start.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Associated Press reporter Nicolas Marmie contributed to this report.