It was a horrible accident. What was left of the black Mercedes lay outside the Pont de l'Alma tunnel in Paris after the devastating crash in August 1997. French firefighter Xavier Gourmelon was among the first to arrive at the scene early on that tragic Saturday morning and immediately went to work rescuing the victims. But Gourmelon and his team had no idea who the victims truly were.
As he pulled the blonde woman out of the wrecked car, he noticed that she still had signs of life. Her lips moved as she struggled to let words out. But Gourmelon could barely hear her, so he leaned closer. That was when it hit him that the woman whose life he was fighting to save was special. After almost three decades, Gourmelon finally shared that he really thought Princess Diana would survive. But after her tragic death, he would learn that he had been the recipient of her final words...
Gourmelon, along with nine other firemen, raced to the Pont d’ Alma underpass to help the victims of the devastating crash. The vehicle involved, a Mercedes-Benz W140, had its front totally wrecked in the accident. Looking inside it, the men could see that one of its occupants appeared to have died.
Gourmelon examined the situation. He scoured the luxury saloon to see if there was anyone else he could still try and save. Then his eyes caught a young, blonde woman inside. She looked like she was still breathing, albeit faintly.
To the Rescue
When Gourmelon successfully freed the blonde woman from the car, she was in fairly stable condition, so he was surprised to learn that she later passed away in the hospital. All the while he was attending to her, he had no idea who she actually was and simply concentrated on doing his best to ensure she survived in that critical moment.
He was even more shocked later on when he found out that the young woman he had saved was, in fact, Diana, Princess of Wales. But there was more to the situation. While he was helping her out of the car, she whispered something to him. And he kept those words a secret for two decades.
With an aristocratic heritage, Lady Diana Spencer became acquainted with the royal family at an early age. Her family lived near the Sandringham House, so she often saw many of the kingdom’s nobles and spent time during her younger years with them.
Academically, however, Spencer wasn’t so fortunate, so she later compensated for it by taking a slew of low-paying jobs in London. However, Diana was destined for a more illustrious future. At 16, her life took an interesting turn that would forever change not only the way she lived but also her family’s fortune.
Diana aged beautifully, but she never shed her shy and humble nature. It was this graceful personality of hers that attracted Charles, Prince of Wales. At the time, Charles was dating Sarah, her older sister, but soon after, a relationship blossomed between the prince and Diana.
The couple tied the knot in 1981 in a fairytale-like ceremony that was broadcast all over the world. An estimated 700 million people worldwide tuned in to watch the Prince of Wales and Diana exchange vows at St. Paul’s Cathedral. But unlike fairytales, sadly, this couple did not live happily ever after.
The Center of Attention
Now a member of Britain’s royal family, Diana faced rules and stringent expectations that were not aligned with her reserved and humble nature. At first, it seemed that having married a prince was the best thing that could have happened to her, but the union soon became agonizing for Diana, especially when she discovered she was pregnant.
For the most part, the void Diana felt within her was because she considered herself undeserving of her new position as a princess. As the media and paparazzi swarmed around her, following her every move and even publishing photographs of her and her family in what were supposed to be intimate and private moments, Diana became overwhelmed. But as the years went by, she quickly learned that the stress of constantly being under the public eye would not be the only bane of her life.
The public saw Prince Charles’s family as a happy, picture-perfect clan. But on the other side of the royal walls, it was a tumultuous affair (quite literally) and their marriage was breaking down. It was reported that both Charles and Diana cheated on each other, and it was later revealed that she suffered from an eating disorder, as well as episodes of mental breakdowns.
While Diana battled to keep a happy demeanor for her role in the public eye, it is widely believed that Charles's rekindled and brazen love affair with his old flame Camila Parker-Bowles, was the final straw in their marriage, as it was done with no regard for Diana’s feelings.
Just a little over a decade after their wedding-of-the-century nuptials, Charles’s and Diana’s marriage crumbled irrevocably. They separated in 1992 and their divorce was finalized in 1996. Fans of the couple were devastated, and it was reported that the divorce hurt Diana more than it did Prince Charles.
Without many friends to confide in, she stepped back from public life. One tabloid reporter claimed that Diana had very few “true friends” in her life. But on the bright side, Diana's love life thrived after she and Charles split.
Still young and gorgeous, it was reported that a throng of suitors surrounded the princess. It was also alleged that during her marriage, she was engaged in love affairs with men such as cavalryman James Hewitt and her bodyguard Paul Manakee.
It also came to light that she had to axe her affair with childhood friend James Gilbey, a car dealer, after phone calls became public in which he called her “Squidgy.” As you can imagine, the media feasted on that specific story.
Behind Closed Doors
Then British-Pakistani heart surgeon Hasnat Khan came along and stole the princess’s heart. It appeared their relationship brought joy back into her life. The romance was kept a tight secret, as Diana searched for a way to live far from the public eye.
She disclosed to friends that she had never met anyone like Khan. The princess had been completely enamored by the surgeon when she first met him while on a visit with a friend to London’s Royal Brompton Hospital.
Head Over Heels
What’s more, according to Vanity Fair, Khan and Diana’s romance continued to progress to the point where they started talking about marriage. Though the princess tried to persuade Khan to agree to a private wedding, he reportedly expelled the idea.
Hasnat was never a fan of all the publicity that came with dating the world’s most famous woman. Instead, he proposed that they both move to Pakistan, where they’d be free of the media meddling in their affairs. Diana reportedly actually gave the idea some genuine consideration.
On top of that, the princess also reportedly shared her feelings about Hasnat with her close friends, who is now prime minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan. Khan later revealed that the conversations he had with her convinced him that she was in love with Hasnat.
But ultimately, the relationship started to fall apart. Despite the new development, Diana continued to work tirelessly for causes she supported. She attended the English National Ballet and visited Mother Theresa before gracing the 1997 cover of Vanity Fair.
That very month, Egyptian billionaire Mohammed Al-Fayed invited Diana to holiday in St. Tropez in the south of France. Al-Fayed first met Diana and Prince Charles in July 1986, when they were introduced at a polo tournament.
Diana accepted his invitation and went on the trip with her two sons, Princes William and Harry, and they stayed in the billionaire’s villa. It came as little surprise when reports started flying around that it was there that Diana became romantically involved with Al Fayed’s son, Dodi.
Even while on vacation in France, the People’s Princess and her brood were still not free from the prying eyes of the press. She was stalked by the paparazzi, and many still haven’t forgotten when pictures of her kissing Dodi aboard the Al Fayed family’s yacht made frontpage news.
During an unplanned press briefing later on, Diana told the reporters present that she would stun them with her next move. But unbeknownst to her or anyone else, her statement would end up being eerily predictive.
Dodi Al Fayed
Princess Diana and Dodi’s relationship strengthened in the weeks before they were tragically killed. But he is said to have admired the princess from afar and had his eyes set on her long before his father invited her on a luxury trip to France.
Dodi was the eldest son and had grown up in affluence. But he’d also made a name for himself as a movie producer and earned credits on Hook, Chariots of Fire, and The Scarlet Letter.
Upon returning to London, Diana called off her two-year relationship with Hasnat Khan, the man she had once referred to as “Mr. Wonderful,” as he later told the police. He quickly presumed she had opened up her heart to someone new - maybe a member of the Al Fayed family.
Khan did not hold the Egyptian businessman in high regard and let the princess know that he felt the new affair would end up hurting her. But although Diana was heartbroken that she and Khan hadn't worked out, her mind was made up about Dodi.
Head Over Heels
Dodi was clearly smitten by Diana, despite the fact that he was at that time engaged to American model Kelly Fisher. Apparently, to make the princess aware of his intentions, he reportedly showered her with expensive gifts, including exotic tropical fruits, a Cartier watch, and flowers that filled her entire room.
He would, at last, receive a positive response to his expressions of love when Diana agreed to embark on a relationship with him. Dodi had earned a harmless playboy status before getting involved with Diana and was known to have dated a string of celebs, including Brooke Shields and Julia Roberts.
In any case, views differed about the strength of Diana and Dodi’s relationship as the summer of 1997 came to an end. Vanity Fair, for example, stated that Dodi intended to buy the princess a ring.
However, the princess had told her close friend Rosa Monckton that she was going to wear the ring on a finger on her right hand. Furthermore, Monckton felt that Diana just wanted to make Khan envious. Dodi's dad, on the contrary, strongly believed that the ring was meant to mark the pair’s engagement.
Whatever the reality of the situation was, however, Diana and Dodi clearly enjoyed spending time with each other. And at the end of July 1997, the couple decided to embark on a cruise together to Sardinia.
But being the hottest couple on the planet meant the paparazzi was once again hot on their heels. In August of that year, Diana was present at an anti-landmine event in Bosnia. While she was there, photographs of her and Dodi snuggling on his yacht hit newsstands.
Ready for the Next Step
The pair was back in France at the end of the month following their wonderful vacation in Sardinia. This time, they chose to visit the city of Paris, checking into the Hôtel Ritz, which is owned by Dodi’s father.
In 2019, The Daily Mirror reported that whilst Diana remained in their suite, Dodi headed out to a jeweler to secure the ring that the princess was anticipating. Then during the night of August 30, 1997, they decided to eat out at the extravagant Benoit restaurant.
Although the couple had planned on an intimate dinner together, the paparazzi threatened to ruin their night out. As they hit the road on their way to Benoit, they were followed by about 30 photographers. So the pair made a u-turn back to the Ritz, deciding instead to dine at the hotel’s L’Espadon restaurant.
But as they settled down to their meal, Dodi became concerned that some of the guests around them were actually paparazzi. This left him and Diana with no other alternative but to return to their suite.
As soon as they were done with dinner, Diana and Dodi decided to retire to his luxurious apartment on the Rue Arsène Houssaye for the rest of the night. But once more, they faced a glaring problem.
The paparazzi had tailed the couple from the minute they left the Ritz earlier that evening. So the couple was almost certain that photographers were lurking around, waiting for them to make a move. Eventually, they came up with what can be termed a grand plot.
A Simple Plan
The plan involved Henri Paul, the deputy head of security at the hotel. Although it was his night off, Paul was called back in to drive Dodi, the princess, and her bodyguard, Trevor Rees-Jones to Dodi’s apartment.
It was arranged that two decoy cars would leave from the main entrance of the hotel in order to fool the paparazzi, while Paul and the others would exit through the back in a hired black Mercedes Benz. This wall took place in the early hours of August 31, 1997.
Just After Midnight
They all got in the car and Paul zoomed down the road. But the swarm of paparazzi somehow had become aware of the plan and began aggressively tailing the limo. Sitting in front with Paul was Rees-Jones.
Subsequently, an inquest heard that the paparazzi, who had earlier on been goaded by Paul outside the hotel, had attempted to "block" the vehicle to force Paul to slow down, but their efforts were futile. Rather, the Mercedes proceeded on its journey, traveling at about 65 mph before disaster struck.
A Sad Fate
The limo continued to blaze down the road. Just three minutes after departing the hotel, right as he was entering the tunnel under Pont d’Alma, Paul lost control of the vehicle. There were no paparazzi closeby at the time that would have been blamed for the mishap, so ultimately, the inquest would place the error on Paul.
Not only was he driving with so much alcohol in his system that he was more than three times over the legal limit, but it was also found that he was under the effects of prescription drugs.
The Tragic Crash
The vehicle hit the wall of the tunnel, swerved left, and with great force, rammed into one of the pillars that supported the roof. It was a brutal and fatal crash that claimed Paul’s life on the spot. And as the mangled remains of the black limo lay in the tunnel, the paparazzi, who had been pursuing the car on motorbikes, arrived at the scene.
But they made little effort to help the affected passengers, opting instead to photograph the wreckage. Thankfully, though, someone eventually put a call through to emergency services, and a team of firefighters hurried out from the Malar station close by.
The team of heroic firefighters was headed by Gourmelon - the duty officer on that tragic night. Now, 20 years after his encounter with the victims, he revealed to The Sun exactly what he and his team had discovered.
Recalling details about the accident involving the world’s most famous couple at the time, Gourmelon said, “The car was in a mess, and we just dealt with it like any road accident. We got straight to work to see who needed help and who was alive.”
Helping the Victims
As an experienced firefighter, the horror crash Gourmelon witnessed was not new to him, and he did what he knew best: analyze the situation and provide help. “For me, this was simply a banal traffic accident - one of many that emergency services have to deal with - and it was the usual causes: speed and a drunk driver,” Gourmelon went on.
He also immediately knew that nothing could be done to save Paul. In his interview with The Sun, Gourmelon said, “When I got to the car, I could see the driver was already dead, and there was nothing that could be done for him.”
Unfortunately, Dodi’s fate in the back seat of the limo wasn’t much better. While still inside, he had suffered a heart attack. Gourmelon was familiar with such traumas, and Dodi’s situation was not looking good at all. He did not survive and died shortly after impact.
Once he’d been extracted from the vehicle, the paramedics called his time of death. But for bodyguard Rees-Jones, there was hope. Although he had been severely injured, including several major facial injuries, he, fortunately, went on to make a recovery.
The Princess’s Bodyguard
Even though he was in great danger, Rees-Jones’s major concern was clearly Diana. In a state of panic, he repeatedly asked for the princess. As Gourmelon recalled, “He kept asking for the princess, saying, ‘Where is she? Where is she?’”
“But my team told him to keep calm and not speak. I told him that none of my men spoke English so it was better for him to keep still and not move. I told him not to worry we were looking after everyone,” he added. This advice may have been the thing to save Rees-Jones's life, as despite his extensive injuries (including breaking every bone in his face that required doctors to use family photos as references to rebuild his looks with 150 titanium plates) and 10 days in a coma, he would be the only survivor. Now head of security for AstraZeneca, he published The Bodyguard's Story: Diana, The Crash, And The Sole Survivor in 2000 and was then involved in lawsuits with Dodi's father, who he said put "intense" pressure on him to remember the events of that fateful night.
In the meantime, Gourmelon took care of Diana, but at the time, he had no idea who she was and identified her as the mystery “blonde woman.” The princess was lying on the floor in the back seat of the car. She was conscious and her eyes were open, so the hero firefighter felt she would be alright after all.
Diana was also reportedly able to make some small movements. But despite her state, crucial seconds were ticking by, and she needed to be moved to a hospital immediately.
The Princess of Wales
Gourmelon gave Diana oxygen and she grasped his hand as he got ready to bring her out of the limo. And the entire time he had no idea he was really attending to the Princess of Wales. This he later revealed in his interview with the newspaper.
He told The Sun, “It was only when she had been put into the ambulance that one of the paramedics told me it was [Princess Diana].” In addition, the firefighter also disclosed the chilling words she spoke to him that night.
While Gourmelon cared for the princess, making sure she didn’t suffer any more harm, she uttered some words to him that may just have been the last words she ever spoke.
Apparently in shock at the mess of the wrecked car, she reportedly said to the man who had rescued her, “My God, what’s happened?” And although Gourmelon did not disclose in his interview whether he ever replied to the princess or not, he spoke about what happened to her next.
Saving a Life
Diana was certainly in good hands with Gourmelon and the rest of the first responders as they worked tirelessly to save her and Rees-Jones after their horrific ordeal. But given the circumstances, there was only so much they could do.
Gourmelon said, “I gave [Diana] some oxygen, and my team and I stayed by her side as she was taken out of the car. It was very quick because we didn’t have to cut any of the wreckage.” But sadly, as she was placed on a stretcher, she suffered a heart attack.
Diana, who had been sitting in the right-back passenger seat when the crash occurred, was reported to have had no visible serious injuries. But the nightmare wasn’t over yet for the princess. She went into cardiac arrest at about 1:00 am, so Gourmelon quickly gave her aid.
At first, it appeared to work. He said in his interview, “I massaged her heart, and a few seconds later she started breathing again. 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.”
No Visible Major Injury
After Diana’s heart started beating again, Gourmelon strongly believed that she would be fine. And he had good reason to think so. Firstly, there wasn’t any blood on her, despite the severity of the crash.
And what’s more, it appeared she had only sustained a minor injury to her right shoulder, It was all the firefighter could notice. Then Gourmelon and his team may have thought they had effectively protected Diana from any more danger. But little did they know the worst was yet to come for her.
It Appeared She Would Live
Hopes were high when Diana was being moved into the emergency vehicle. She appeared to be stable and was on her way to meet the best hands at Pitié-Salpétrière Hospital. Gourmelon thought the princess had a good chance of survival.
He told The Sun, “To be honest, I thought she would live.” But it would be hours after the devastating crash and Diana's transportation to the hospital that he would receive news that not only shocked him but also rocked the entire world.
Shortly after 2:00 a.m., the ambulance arrived at the hospital, and Diana was immediately rushed into surgery. Doctors raced against time and fought hard to keep the princess conscious. She had to be revived several times, and their efforts were ultimately futile.
Diana, Princess of Wales, passed on after succumbing to her injuries. She had suffered, amongst others, a ruptured blood vessel close to her heart. The damage was inconspicuous but extensive. Unfortunately, the night wasn’t yet over for Gourmelon.
Princess Diana Is Dead
After Diana had been transported to the hospital, Gourmelon returned to the fire station. He was working a double weekend shift and recalled how he immediately called his wife to tell her what had happened that night.
The lead firefighter said, “[My wife] was asleep, and I told her about the accident and Princess Diana. I said that she had suffered a cardiac arrest, but I’d managed to revive her.” Sadly, though, at around 04:00 a.m., the princess passed away.
The 20-Year-Old Secret
Fondly known as the People’s Princess, the death of Diana shook the world. It was trailed by an unprecedented outpouring of emotion from the public. And for Gourmelon back in France, the events of that fateful night in August remained fresh in his memory.
Despite the media frenzy, he did not speak about the tragedy for two decades until he was no longer part of the fire service. In his interview with The Sun, the hero firefighter said, “I can still picture the whole scene. It’s something I’ll never forget and that I always think about at this time of year.”