Princess Diana's Death: Her Tragic Car Accident and Its Aftermath

·7 min read
Diana, Princess of Wales, wearing a cream satin dress by Gina Fratini with the Queen Mary Cambridge Lover's Knot Tiara and diamond earrings attends a banquet on April 29, 1983 in Auckland, New Zealand
Diana, Princess of Wales, wearing a cream satin dress by Gina Fratini with the Queen Mary Cambridge Lover's Knot Tiara and diamond earrings attends a banquet on April 29, 1983 in Auckland, New Zealand

Anwar Hussein/WireImage

In late August 1997, Princess Diana was newly divorced and ready to begin a brand-new chapter of her life.

Then 36 years old, the royal mom to Prince William, then 15, and Prince Harry, then 12, was in a blossoming relationship with Dodi Al Fayed, the son of Harrods department store owner Mohamed Al Fayed. The new couple, making the most of summer, had been vacationing in France together.

On Aug. 31, 1997, Diana and Al Fayed were traveling in a car in Paris — with a driver and bodyguard— pursued by paparazzi when their vehicle slammed into a support column, flipped and came to a rest in front of oncoming traffic. Al Fayed and the driver died instantly, while medical workers attempted to keep Diana alive for hours before her death was announced at nearly 5:00 a.m. on Aug. 31.

Here is a look at what happened when Princess Diana died, as well as the legacy she left behind.

How did Princess Diana die?

Prince Charles, Prince Harry, Earl Spencer, Prince William and the Duke of Edinburgh (L to R) follow the coffin of Diana, Princess of Wales, as it is being carried into Westminster Abbey for a funeral service 06 September
Prince Charles, Prince Harry, Earl Spencer, Prince William and the Duke of Edinburgh (L to R) follow the coffin of Diana, Princess of Wales, as it is being carried into Westminster Abbey for a funeral service 06 September

JEFF J MITCHELL/AFP

The princess was in Paris with Al Fayed when the paparazzi followed the car she was traveling in, hoping to get a photo of the couple.

The driver of the car, Henri Paul — who was later found to be inebriated — turned into a tunnel that ran next to the Seine River in an attempt to evade the photographers. But the vehicle quickly spun out of control while being driven at a speed of 121 mph.

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Jerome Laumonier, who was near the crash site, later told PEOPLE, "There was this huge, violent, terrifying crash followed by the lone sound of a car horn."

When did Princess Diana die?

Princess Diana died on Aug. 31, 1997. The news was quickly confirmed by British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, who commented, "I am greatly shocked by this news. Our first thoughts must be with her children and family at this time of immense loss to them."

Following Diana's death, Prince Charles was joined by Princess Diana's sisters Lady Sarah McCorquodale and Lady Jane Fellowes on a flight to Paris to bring Diana's body back to London. When the trio arrived at the hospital, Diana's body was alone with her butler, Paul Burrell, and her driver, Colin Tebbutt. A friend previously told PEOPLE of Burrell, "It was his sad duty to supervise her going into the casket and the way she looked."

Where did Princess Diana die?

the Princess of Wales attends a service commemorating the 70th anniversary of the armistice, at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, 11th November 1988. She is wearing a double breasted Jasper Conran coat, with a commemorative poppy, and a Viv Knowlands hat. (Photo by Jayne Fincher/Getty Images)
the Princess of Wales attends a service commemorating the 70th anniversary of the armistice, at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, 11th November 1988. She is wearing a double breasted Jasper Conran coat, with a commemorative poppy, and a Viv Knowlands hat. (Photo by Jayne Fincher/Getty Images)

Jayne Fincher/Getty

Princess Diana died in Paris following a vacation with her sons in St. Tropez. Diana and Al Fayed traveled to the French city via a jet that belonged to Al Fayed's father and were staying in a $2,000-a-night suite in the Ritz, also owned by the Al Fayed family.

The couple had dinner at the hotel's restaurant that night, with one employee of the hotel telling PEOPLE, "They looked like two love-struck teenagers." The pair were then notified that nearly 30 photographers were waiting outside the Ritz and decided to head to Al Fayed's apartment off the Champs Elysees instead of staying at the hotel. Despite using three decoy cars to try to get away from the photographers, most stayed put until Diana and Al Fayed got into a car with Paul and drove away.

Who else died in the car accident?

Both Princess Diana's boyfriend Al Fayed and the driver, Paul, died instantly. Paul, who was an employee of the Ritz at the time, was later found to be driving with an illegal blood alcohol level.

Al Fayed's bodyguard Trevor Rees-Jones was the only survivor of the crash and the only passenger who wore a seat belt, although he suffered serious injuries.

How old was Princess Diana when she died?

Diana Princess Of Wales Crouching Down To Embrace One Of The Many Pupils At The Swaminarayan School Whom She Met During Her Visit To The Shri Swaminarayan Mandir In Neasden,london
Diana Princess Of Wales Crouching Down To Embrace One Of The Many Pupils At The Swaminarayan School Whom She Met During Her Visit To The Shri Swaminarayan Mandir In Neasden,london

Tim Graham Photo Library

Princess Diana was 36 years old when she died. She celebrated her final birthday on July 1, 1997, by attending an event in support of the Tate Gallery's Centenary in London. She took time to greet fans and well-wishers who had shown up outside the event to hand her birthday gifts such as cards and flowers.

What were Princess Diana's last words?

Princess Diana In Argentina
Princess Diana In Argentina

Tim Graham Photo Library Princess Diana

In 2015, firefighter Xavier Gourmelon revealed Princess Diana's last words in an interview with The Independent. Gourmelon said that Diana momentarily gained consciousness and asked, "My God, what has happened?"

Gourmelon was also one of the people who revived Diana after delivering chest compressions. At the time, he believed Diana would be okay. He said, "It was a relief, of course, because as a first responder you want to save lives — and that's what I thought I had done." He added that finding out she had died the next day was "very upsetting" and "I know now that there were serious internal injuries, but the whole episode is still very much in my mind. The memory of that night will stay with me forever."

How did the public react to Princess Diana's death?

The Prince of Wales, Prince William and Prince Harry look at floral tributes to Diana, Princess of Wales outside Kensington Palace on September 5, 1997 in London, England
The Prince of Wales, Prince William and Prince Harry look at floral tributes to Diana, Princess of Wales outside Kensington Palace on September 5, 1997 in London, England

Anwar Hussein/Getty

The general public was rocked by the loss of the royal who had been nicknamed the People's Princess. Thousands of people lined the streets outside Buckingham Palace, leaving notes, flowers and mementos in honor of Diana's life.

The royal family kept a distance between themselves and the public mourners at first. The family hid away at the Queen's residence at Balmoral, where the Queen and Prince Charles hoped to give Prince William and Prince Harry a bit of respite before their mother's funeral on Sept. 6, 1997.

Why was Prince Charles questioned about Princess Diana's death in 2004?

Prince Charles And Princess Diana On Their Last Official Trip Together - A Visit To The Republic Of Korea (south Korea).they Are Attending A Presidential Banquet At The Blue House In Seoul
Prince Charles And Princess Diana On Their Last Official Trip Together - A Visit To The Republic Of Korea (south Korea).they Are Attending A Presidential Banquet At The Blue House In Seoul

Tim Graham Photo Library

Years after Princess Diana died, the British Metropolitan Police opened an inquiry into her death and requested to interview and question Prince Charles. The police had been told about a note that Princess Diana wrote in 1995 that read, "My husband is planning 'an accident' in my car, brake failure and serious head injury." Diana reportedly believed that Charles might be planning such an accident so that he could marry Prince William and Prince Harry's nanny at the time.

Nothing came of the investigation, and Charles participated fully.

What legacy did Princess Diana leave behind?

Prince William, Duke of Cambridge (L) and Britain's Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex unveil a statue of their mother, Princess Diana at The Sunken Garden in Kensington Palace, London on July 1, 2021
Prince William, Duke of Cambridge (L) and Britain's Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex unveil a statue of their mother, Princess Diana at The Sunken Garden in Kensington Palace, London on July 1, 2021

DOMINIC LIPINSKI/POOL/AFP

Princess Diana is as relevant now as she has ever been, and that is in part due to the work that her sons, Prince William and Prince Harry, have done to ensure that her legacy lives on both through themselves and through their own children.

While speaking at the Diana Awards on his mother's birthday in 2022, Prince Harry shared with attendees that he can see his mother's work lives on through them. He said, "I see her legacy in all of you. I see her legacy in a Diana Award community that spans multiple generations. I see her legacy every time I meet with families, young people, and children from all corners of the world. And, I see my mum's legacy when I look at my own children every day."

This echoed what Prince William told Diana Awards honorees in 2019 when they visited his home, Kensington Palace. As Tessy Ojo, the chief executive of the Diana Award charity, told PEOPLE, "He asked me, 'How did you find these young people? These are truly world changers.' And the other thing he said to the group was 'my mother would be so proud of you.' "

Prince William and Prince Harry have also continued to honor their mother by carrying on with her work in their own lives. In May 2021, William worked with the organization Centrepoint, the same organization his mother had been a patron of in her lifetime, on a project aimed at combating homelessness. In January 2022, Harry showed that his mother is never far from him as he traveled to Angola to walk the same landmine walk that his mother traversed in January 1997.