For many, the needless death of Diana, Princess of Wales, in the late summer of 1997 was one of the decades’ most heartbreaking moments. But more than 20 years on from the passing of the People’s Princess, the tragic event is still shrouded in mystery. Now, an important participant in that fateful night’s drama has finally stepped forward, and his revelations add a new level of poignancy to the entire episode.
Born on July 1, 1961, into a family that included U.K. war leader Sir Winston Churchill, Diana Spencer could boast a wealth of aristocratic connections. Indeed, when her father was made the eighth Earl Spencer in June, 1975, she joined their ranks, becoming Lady Diana at the tender age of 13. As a young noblewoman, she would often stay on estates owned by Queen Elizabeth II. But it was through her elder sister, Lady Sarah McCorquodale, that Diana would meet Prince Charles – the immediate heir to the British throne – in 1977.
In fact, Sarah had been seeing Charles at the time, but their relationship fizzled out. It would not be until three years later that the prince got to know Diana a little better. After going on only a dozen dates, the pair became engaged and then soon married on July 29, 1981, making Diana the Princess of Wales. During their union, the couple would welcome two children – Prince William and Prince Harry – into the world. Sadly, however, Charles and Diana’s marriage began to wither soon after, leading to a separation in 1992. They finally divorced four years later.
Nevertheless, despite her split from the Royal Family, Princess Diana remained a beloved figure in the public eye. Through her charity work, she famously increased awareness around various issues, including AIDS and the banning of landmines in war-torn regions. As a result, she would gain the posthumous title “People’s Princess” from then Prime Minister of the U.K. Tony Blair.
But with her heightened public profile came massive press scrutiny and Diana lived almost every second of her adult life under the media spotlight. This was especially true with regard to her romantic relationships after her split from Charles. And her controversial courtship of muslim film producer and business heir Dodi Fayed in the summer of 1997 led to her being swarmed by the press while out in public.
However, while unwanted media attention can be a blight on people’s lives, Diana’s paparazzi following would have tragic consequences. While fleeing from nuisance photographers in Paris on August 31, 1997, the princess’ chauffeur-driven car entered the Pont de l’Alma tunnel. Unfortunately, driver Henri Paul – under the influence of alcohol and prescription drugs – lost control of the vehicle.
After the car’s collision with a pillar in the tunnel, Parisian emergency services were called to the scene at about 1:00 a.m. Both the driver and Dodi were declared dead on the spot, yet the severely injured princess somehow hung on. She was removed from the wreckage and raced by ambulance to the city’s Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital. Nevertheless, the 36-year-old’s internal injuries were too great and Diana sadly succumbed to cardiac arrest at 4:00 a.m.
And almost from the instant of her death, the watching world seemed to be united in grief. Many who treasured Diana left flowers and various tributes outside her home at Kensington Palace and the Spencer estate at Althorp, southern England. Indeed, the outpouring was so great that before too long it was estimated that more than a million bouquets had been left at the palace in London. And mourners were requested to stop calling at the family estate, as visitor numbers and the sheer amount of flowers were thought to be threatening public safety.
Similarly, Diana’s funeral service – held at Westminster Abbey on September 6 – was a testament to the Princess’ worldwide adoration. As more than a million onlookers crowded outside the London venue, a global audience of as many as 2.5 billion viewers watched the ceremony on television. In addition, events made Queen Elizabeth II break with protocol the day before the funeral to make a live TV broadcast to commemorate her one-time daughter-in-law’s memory.
And people did not forget that there were plenty of unanswered questions regarding the events in Paris that August night. Indeed, in the intervening years since the crash, the details surrounding Diana’s death have been of great interest to the public. However, many who were witness to the princess’ final moments have since remained quiet. But, on the 20th anniversary of the tragic event, one important figure decided to break their silence.
A young firefighter Xavier Gourmelon had been on duty that night at the nearby Malar fire station when a call came in about a traffic accident at the Pont de l’Alma. The now 50-year-old spoke about the infamous incident to The Sun newspaper on August, 30, 2017. “The car was in a mess and we just dealt with it like any road accident,” he revealed to the U.K. tabloid. “We got straight to work to see who needed help and who was alive.”
Upon inspection of the wreck, the experienced firefighter instantly knew that the chauffeur was dead and that Dodi – who would die a short time later – was in a very serious condition. However, the female passenger had miraculously survived. And despite her punishing ordeal, she seemed to have escaped any major injury. Gourmelon said, “I could see she had a slight injury to her right shoulder but, other than that, there was nothing significant. There was no blood on her at all.”
As a first respondent to the smash, the fire crewman’s priority was to give aid and attention to those inside the wreckage. As a consequence – although it seems hard to credit now – Gourmelon failed to recognize the princess. He told The Sun, “It was only when she had been put into the ambulance that one of the paramedics told me it was her.”
But, regardless of the car-crash victim’s status, the professional Gourmelon had a job to do in that tunnel. Immediately, the firefighter set about helping the injured aristocrat out of the wreck and held Diana’s hand in an effort to calm the traumatized woman down. Dazed and confused, the princess asked him, “My God, what’s happened?”
Despite Gourmelon and his team’s best efforts, however, the shocked Diana began to experience breathing difficulties on her removal from the car. Jumping into action, the heroic Gourmelon massaged the princess’ heart which revived her. “It was a relief of course because… you want to save lives,” he explained. “And that’s what I thought I had done.”
Due to France’s emergency-service laws, Gourmelon – who has since left his post as a Parisian firefighter – was sworn to secrecy regarding the event. In fact, he has only spoken publicly on the incident once before, at an inquest into Diana’s death in 2007. Nonetheless, while the rules of his profession forbade him to speak out, Gourmelon may have had other reasons for keeping silent.
Indeed, it must have been a totally harrowing experience. “I can still picture it now in my mind,” he confessed to The Sun. Moreover, the pain of the memory remains particularly strong because Gourmelon was convinced that he had successfully saved the princess’ life. He even woke his wife that night to tell her that he had prevented one of the world’s most-beloved figures from dying.
But, alas – of course – this was not to be the case. “I found out later she had died in hospital,” Gourmelon recalled to the tabloid. “It was very upsetting… I can still picture the whole scene. It’s something I’ll never forget and that I always think about this time of year.”
Though it has been two decades since her untimely death, the People’s Princess has never left her public’s heart. And great efforts have been made to preserve her memory. On the eve of the tenth anniversary of her death, William and Harry organized the tribute Concert for Diana. Seven years later, her eldest son later named his daughter Charlotte Elizabeth Diana.
And, as Princess Diana’s legacy lives on, Gourmelon has tried to move on in his own life. Currently the head of emergency services at Brest Airport in France, the former-firefighter has seemingly reached a point of closure concerning the tragic incident in Paris. However, the horrors of that event still linger on. Gourmelon maintains, “The memory of that night will stay with me forever.”