Britain’s star-crossed Princess Diana, newly in love after a bitter divorce from Prince Charles, and her companion, Harrods heir Dodi Fayed, died early Sunday after their car crashed in a Paris tunnel, apparently while being chased by photographers.
The death of the 36-year-old Diana was confirmed by both French and British sources just before dawn, 5-1/2 hours after the accident near the River Seine. Fayed, 41, died at the scene along with the car’s driver.
Doctors said death came to the world’s most photographed woman from a collapsed left lung, head injuries and cardiac arrest at 4 a.m. in an intensive-care unit at a Paris hospital that specializes in emergency cases.
“This has taken on the scale of a Greek tragedy,” royals watcher Una Mary Parker said as London awoke stunned and grieving.
“How appalling that she died at a moment when she had really found happiness and was looking forward to the future. Just 10 days ago she was telling friends of mine how terribly in love she was.”
News of the accident came while Britain slept, but before dawn mourners had begun to leave bouquets of flowers outside the princess’s official residence at Kensington Palace in central London.
French police said the accident occurred in the tunnel at the Place de l’Alma across from the Eiffel Tower in the capital’s 8th Arondissement at 12:35 a.m.
First word came from a police spokesman: “Princess Diana has had a traffic accident in Paris. She is seriously injured. Dodi al Fayed is dead.”
Diana and millionaire Egyptian playboy Fayed were sitting in the back seat of the car when the accident occurred. According to the first reports, the car struck the wall of the four-lane tunnel, careened against concrete pillars in the median, rolled several times and came to a halt on its wheels.
The French news agency Agence France-Presse said that police were questioning a handful of reporters, and Interior Minister Jean-Pierre Chevenement said he had reports that the driver of the princess’ car had lost control as he was being pursued.
Police said the black Mercedes sedan was being driven by a security officer from the Hotel Ritz in Paris, which is owned by the Fayed family. He died at the scene. A fourth person in the car, a bodyguard, was hospitalized after being freed from the wreckage, and there were unconfirmed reports that he too had died.
Diana and Fayed had dined at the hotel Saturday night in a farewell supper after a vacation in southern France, their third holiday together in five weeks.
Diana was to have returned to London Sunday morning to be with her children, Princes William, 15, and Harry, 13, before they return to boarding school after their summer vacation. The princess’ former husband, the heir to the British throne, was awakened with first reports of the accident at the royal castle at Balmoral in Scotland, where he was spending time with his sons.
British sources said Charles informed his sons of their mother’s death before dawn in Scotland. Both Queen Elizabeth II and Prime Minister Tony Blair were also awakened with the news. “I am utterly devastated,” Blair said.
Among those at the hospital when the princess died were Michael Jay, the British ambassador to France, and his wife; French Interior Minister Chevenement; the British consul-general; and Paris Police Chief Philippe Massoni.
Although there was no immediate confirmation, AFP and British reporters said the accident occurred while the Mercedes was traveling at speeds close to 100 mph in an attempt to elude pursuing photographers.
Pursuing photographers, called by the Italian word “paparazzi” by the British, were a fact of life for both Diana and the Fayed family. By one report, about 30 photographers waited outside the Ritz for the couple to leave. To avoid the photographers, the couple apparently switched cars and left the hotel by a back door.
Still, British reporters said, photographers on a motorcycle and in at least one car apparently set out after the Mercedes.
What is certain is that Diana, who became a storybook princess at 20 and lived at the end of a telephoto lens ever since, died hating the British press.
Last week, in an interview with the Paris daily Le Monde, she fired a new barrage of what had become well-known complaint. “The press is savage. It doesn’t forgive anything. They only track the mistakes. Each intention is misread, every gesture criticized,” Diana told Le Monde reporter Annick Cojean.
“I think that abroad it is different. I am greeted with affection. They take me for what I am without any a priori, without being on the lookout for a gaffe. In Great Britain it’s the contrary, and I think that anybody in my place would have left a long time ago, but I can’t - I have my sons,” she said.
In Edgartown, Mass., a vacationing President Clinton said early Sunday that he was “profoundly saddened” by the death of Diana.
Deputy White House Press Secretary Joe Lockhart, with the vacationing president on Martha’s Vineyard, said he spoke with Clinton, who gave him this statement:
“Hillary and I knew Princess Diana and we were very fond of her. We are profoundly saddened by this tragic event.”
Diana, who was divorced from Charles last year, had returned to Britain last week from a visit abroad but left almost immediately to join Fayed, the scion of the family that owns Harrods department store in London.
Earlier this summer, Diana’s sons accompanied her on a cruise aboard a Fayed yacht. The tall, blonde Diana, who said she wanted to become Britain’s “queen of hearts” when divorce cost her any chance of queen of the future king, was discreet about any friendships with men following the divorce.
Fayed, whose father, Mohammed Fayed, is one of Britain’s best-known and most controversial entrepreneurs, was the first boyfriend of Diana’s identified by the British press since the divorce. In the first week of August, British newspapers speculated that Dodi and Diana were in love. On Aug. 10, a tabloid newspaper published blurred pictures of the couple kissing.
On Aug. 21, Princess Diana and Fayed flew to the French Mediterranean resort of St. Tropez for their third getaway of the summer.
According to British newspapers, Diana first met Fayed almost 10 years ago when he and Prince Charles played polo on opposing teams.
“The deaths were appalling and quite needless,” the elder Fayed said.