British Inquest Jury Retraces Princess Diana's Fatal Path For New Clues

Monday, October 8th 2007, 9:43 am
By: News On 6

PARIS (AP) _ The roar of Paris rush hour died down, giving way to eerie quiet. With traffic halted, jurors in a British inquest ventured by foot into a dark underpass and came to a halt before the scarred, dented pillar where Princess Diana's Mercedes crashed 10 years ago.

The 11 jurors retraced Diana's final moments Monday, collecting memories to help them piece together how she and her boyfriend Dodi Fayed died on Aug. 31, 1997.

Lord Justice Scott Baker, heading the inquest, asked jurors to absorb the sights: the back door of the Ritz Hotel, where Diana and her lover slipped away for their final ride; the flow of traffic on the Place de la Concorde; the slope and twist of the Pont de l'Alma underpass, where their speeding car slammed into a concrete pillar. Driver Henri Paul also died in the crash.

Under British law, inquests are held when someone dies unexpectedly, violently or of unknown causes, but this inquest was delayed by exhaustive investigations by French and British authorities. Both dismissed conspiracy theories and concluded the driver was drunk and speeding.

The inquest is to determine when, where and how Diana and Fayed were killed. It opened last week and is expected to last no more than six months.

Much of Monday's itinerary focused on the underpass, across the Seine River from the Eiffel Tower.

Led by two French police motorcyclists, three gray buses with tinted windows carried jurors, court officials and journalists through the tunnel, once in each direction. Then police stopped traffic, and jurors set out on foot for a close look at the crash site.

Baker stopped before the tunnel's 13th pillar _ where the Mercedes slammed to a stop _ and gazed at it silently. A chunk of concrete was gouged off near its base. Baker did not say whether that was caused by the crash 10 years ago; he merely urged jurors to look around.

Many other pillars also were badly chipped. One column bore recent graffiti, punctuated with a heart. ``Lady Diana, we will always love you,'' a French fan scrawled there Sept. 14.

Jurors were to make another visit to the underpass in the evening to more closely replicate the conditions of the after midnight crash, and were also to be driven to the Pitie Salpetriere Hospital where Diana died.

Camera crews were posted throughout Paris to capture the buses as they sped around under police escort. Court officials shouted at cameramen to get off the road while jurors studied traffic patterns near the tunnel.

Baker asked everyone to keep in mind that Monday was not necessarily an ordinary day in Paris. ``Members of the jury, it may be that what you're seeing is not entirely natural because of the large number of police and photographers that are present,'' he said.

The tour was marked by a few surreal moments.

As a bus arrived at the Ritz Hotel for the inquest, it collided with its own police outrider, knocking him off his motorcycle. Moments later, a loud bang echoed across the square as a bus tire burst.

Mechanics spent more than a half hour changing the tire, but waiting photographers snapped to life when Victoria Beckham emerged from the Ritz wearing a short black dress, huge sunglasses and stiletto heels.

Officials kept details of the inquest's Paris visit under wraps until the last moment amid fears of swarming paparazzi similar to those who pursued the former wife of the heir to the British throne and her boyfriend in their final moments.

Diana, 36, and Fayed, 42, were heading from the Ritz to Fayed's home near the Arc de Triomphe when they were killed. His father, Egyptian-born billionaire Mohamed al Fayed, has said it was their engagement night; al Fayed claims the couple was murdered in a plot directed by Prince Philip, husband of Queen Elizabeth II.

A French investigation concluded the car was speeding and the driver had a blood alcohol level more than three times the legal limit. Tests showed the presence of two prescription drugs, including the antidepressant Prozac, in the driver's system.

Neither the French nor British investigations have blamed paparazzi for the crash.

On Tuesday, the jury is expected to visit the Ritz Hotel and other places in Paris. When it returns to London this week, it will hear from the first French witnesses via a video link with the Court of Appeal in Paris.