Diana's death: the plot thickens

Rumours abound at the site of the fatal accident.
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THE MAP proves everything - at least in the fevered but tidy mind that produced it. The MI5 man stood here; the MI6 man stood there. The white Fiat Uno sprang in from the right, striking the "Benz", which skidded out of control. The stricken limousine's trajectory is shown on the map by a curving, dotted line. The line runs into the 13th of the carefully numbered pillars representing the most famous underpass in the world.

Underneath there is the following inscription in English (possibly written by someone else): "It was not an accident because the 'imperial family' will not permit to half-breed children. However, they are the most beautiful."

These scribblings are part of an ugly, daily-extending frieze of tributes and conspiracy theories 120ft long by 3ft deep which has appeared on the parapet above the tunnel de L'Alma where Diana, Princess of Wales met with her fatal road accident six months ago this weekend.

Many of the inscriptions are simple and moving; others cloying; quite a few crazy and disturbing: "The KGB and ultra-leftists killed my Diana here! Now they want to kill her a second time. She told me in a dream."

The favourite parapet theory is the one propagated by Colonel Gaddafi, the press of the Arab world and the Internet: the British security services - the theory goes - murdered Diana to prevent her having Dodi's child and giving the heir to the British throne a Muslim brother or sister.

It was evident from the day of Diana's death that the events in the underpass beneath the Place de L'Alma in the early hours of Sunday 31 August would become the new Dallas, 22 November 1963: they would be endlessly examined and re-examined, distorted and re-distorted. The process has been wind- assisted by the rumour-mongers on the Internet (who seem intent on turning us all into Global Village-idiots).

The theorising has also been fuelled by the slowness and leak-perforated secrecy of the French judicial inquiry, conducted by Judge Herve Stephan. Six months after the accident there has been no press conference, and few official statements, by the French judicial authorities to establish the basic facts or nail some of the stupider rumours and speculations surrounding Diana's death.

As far as I can determine, the following outline of events has been confirmed by the investigation as fact (we will come to the uncertainties and absurdities in a moment).

The crash was an accident. The driver, Henri Paul, had imbibed nearly three times the permitted level of alcohol. He had also taken mind-calming drugs. He should not have been driving that type of car (an armoured limousine). The only person to fasten a seat-belt was Trevor Rees-Jones, the bodyguard, and only survivor. The route was chosen by Henri Paul and Dodi al Fayed just before the party left the Ritz hotel. The destination was Dodi's flat off the Champs Elysses. There was no need to go anywhere near the tunnel de l'Alma to reach Dodi's flat. The route was chosen because Henri Paul wanted to travel at high-speed along the Seine quays to scatter the pursuing pack of press photographers. Everyone knew that other photographers were waiting at the flat.

What remains uncertain is exactly how the Mercedes came to spin out of control. Fragments found at the crash site, and marks on the wreckage, strongly suggest that the Mercedes gave a glancing blow to another car (not the other way around). It is very likely that this "second car" was a white Fiat Uno which fled the crash scene for reasons unknown. Efforts by French police to locate this car have failed.

The investigation is also examining seriously a theory that the Mercedes' airbags opened - wrongly - when it gave the Fiat a glancing blow, making it impossible for Henri Paul to steer properly.

The investigation is supposed to be completed by June. Despite the full- time work of 20 detectives, much remains debatable or uncertain. It is difficult, however, without an enormous act of will, to bend the established facts into a shape which reads "assassination". The route was unknown; the Mercedes travelling at high speed. Even Diana and Dodi's presence in Paris that day was unexpected. Leaving aside all question of motives, who could possibly have planned to ram the flying Mercedes at that place, at that time? With a Fiat Uno?

It was not a banal road accident: the fact that 20 detectives have worked on the case for six months is proof of that. But the event was exceptional chiefly because of the identity of the victims. In almost every other respect it was an all-too-banal Saturday night-Sunday morning road accident.

A recent survey showed that the three most frequent causes of road deaths in France are, in order: excessive speed, alcohol, and failure to fasten seat-belts.

On 31 August 1997, in the tunnel de l' Alma, all three factors were present and three people died.