Death Under the Place de l'Alma

Wreck of the Mercedes
Image from: France 2 TV News.

Revulsion Expressed by Parisians and Visitors

Paris:- Sunday, 31. August 1997:- Today, the last day of the summer, the last day before school begins in France, the last day of being able to be free in the warm, bright and pleasant light of the Ile-de-France - today has turned out to be one of the sorriest days of the year; perhaps one of the sorriest days of any year.

Last night, a dark Mercedes 600 limousine left the Ritz Hotel in the Place Vendôme. It turned right into the rue de Rivoli by the arcades and went west towards the place de la Concorde. It made the half-circle there and turned west again, into the Cours Albert 1er, a one-way route which parallels the Seine.

In the warm and calm night the big car sped past the Petit Palais and the bulkier Grand Palais, hounded by a small swarm of photo- journalists who had been waiting in the Place Vendôme for just such an evening return to a private apartment.

Just before coming to the place de l'Alma the limousine swung left and off the Cours Albert 1er, towards the tunnel which runs under the busy place.

The big and powerful limousine did not come out of the tunnel. It did not reach the avenue de New York in the eighth arrondissement on the other side; it did not reach the destination of its passengers.

Witnesses said the car appeared to be travelling at high speed - perhaps as much as 150 kph - and the motor sounded as if it was turning at high rpm. The luxury Mercedes was followed by a reported seven photo-journalists on motorcycles and scooters.

These were the first to reach the scene of the totally wrecked limousine, which went out of control in the tunnel, hitting a conrete pillar and smashing into a wall.

The site of the wreck was the unplanned end of the evening's excursion. Nevertheless, the photo-journalists did their work just as if the intended destination had been reached.

Killed outright in the crash were the driver and Emad Mohamed 'Dodi' al Fahed, 41, son of the owner of the Ritz Hotel. His companion, for the past month and for the evening, Diana, Princess of Wales, 36, died in the Pité-Salpêtrière Hospital at four o'clock this morning. A fourth passenger, the bodyguard, was not seriously injured but is in hospital.

As the news became known of the deaths of the Princess and Mr. al Fayed, first France, and then Europe, came to a halt. State TV France 2 devoted 25 minutes of the mid-day news to the story and after a short pause broadcast a 'Special Edition' non-stop until 14:30.

The TV news showed Parisians and visitors to the city in the tunnel under the place de l'Alma early this morning, placing flowers by the concrete pillar hit by the car, while traffic crept slowly through. Police later closed access to the tunnel to pedestrians.

Tonight the seven photo-journalists were still being held for questioning by Paris' Criminal Brigade at the quai des Orfèvres. Their photo equipment and their transport has been seized for examination by police specialists.

Eye-witnesses left no doubt that the photo-journalists were following the limousine; but they were obviously not close enough behind it to have become involved in the crash itself.

All the same, public sentiment against the 'paparazzi' and their methods of harassment of the famous mounted. One speaker referred to the 'savage capitalism' of the press.

The one-time head of the Gamma and Sygma photo agency in Paris suggested that the public demands the photos, the editors are eager to publish the photos, and the publishers of the picture press, push for the profits to be gained from increased circulation.

It is not clear which comes first - the publishers' desire for profits or the publics' desire for photo-features about famous people; but a France 2 TV news commentator said the public should "demand decency."

Another commentator predicted that this sector of the popular press would be discrete in the coming days ahead - as the various funerals take place - but would soon slip back to its old ways.

Meanwhile, between news broadcasts, worldwide TV news began showing 'the Princess Diana Story;' in words, but mostly in pictures.

Until Paris police are able to talk to the surviving bodyguard, we will not know exactly what happened in the tunnel under the place de l'Alma on a warm Paris Saturday night at the end of the this year's - mostly - wonderful summer.

This was no way to end it.

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