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PRINCESS DIANA: 1961-1997

Driver in Paris Crash Reportedly Legally Drunk

Accident: Hotel Ritz security officer had three times French alcohol limit in blood. Upset U.S. couple describe photographers' behavior near dying Princes Diana.

September 02, 1997|JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PARIS — The man driving the limousine in which Princess Diana was killed was legally drunk, with more than three times the lawful level of alcohol in his blood as he raced through central Paris at speeds of more than 110 miles an hour, official French sources said Monday.

Two New York tourists, meanwhile, came forward to paint a grisly, ghoulish tableau of the scene of Diana's fatal accident, with photographers crowding within inches of the dying, moaning princess and other bloodied victims to snap their pictures and shoving aside police who tried to keep them at a distance.

Authorities indicated at least some of the seven photographers who had been chasing Diana on motorcycles and were detained after the accident could be charged with violating France's "Good Samaritan" law requiring people to help others in distress.

Diana, 36, was mortally injured in the high-speed crash of the black Mercedes-Benz sedan early Sunday, while her wealthy companion, Dodi Fayed, 41, and the driver, Hotel Ritz employee Henri Paul, were killed on the spot.

The car hit a concrete pillar in an underground road tunnel running parallel to the River Seine. Police detectives from the Paris Criminal Brigade, heading the investigation into the tragedy, estimated Monday that the vehicle was traveling at least 111 mph in a 30-mph zone when it crashed.

Confirming earlier reports, co-workers at the Ritz said the limousine's driver was not a full-time chauffeur but a former French serviceman who was deputy chief for security at the exclusive establishment owned by Fayed's father, Egyptian tycoon Mohammed Fayed. Paul, 41, sometimes chauffeured VIP guests at the hotel, they said.

Late Saturday, in an effort to elude the photographers that went tragically awry, the security specialist was pressed into service to drive Diana and her suitor. There were unconfirmed reports in British newspapers early today that there had been taunting between Paul and the photographers, with the driver telling them they would never catch him.

Michael Cole, spokesman for the Fayed family, said in London that Paul, "an exemplary employee" who had picked up the couple at the airport and brought them into Paris earlier in the day, had been the third choice to drive the couple from the Ritz after dinner.

The first driver and a backup were surrounded by photographers as they arrived in front of the hotel. In Paris, Bernard Dartevelle, a lawyer for the elder Fayed, said the regular chauffeur tried to trick the photographers into following him.

Paul then left with Diana and the younger Fayed from the rear of the hotel, according to Cole, but was detected by the paparazzi. One of the photographers' motorbikes, Cole claimed, tried to cut in front of the limousine to slow it down.

"The photographers were flashing off blitz lights into the eyes of the people inside the car," Cole said. "It was like a stagecoach surrounded by Indians, but instead of firing arrows, they were firing these lights into the eyes of the people."

Employees at the Ritz, where Paul, identified by one hotel official as a former commando in the French air force, had worked since 1986, expressed puzzlement that he then lost control of the vehicle.

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Far from being an inexperienced driver, Cole said, Paul, a native of the port city of Lorient in Brittany, had taken two driving courses on how to chauffeur bulletproof and conventional limousines at a school run by Mercedes near Stuttgart, Germany. Paul had also learned anti-terrorist and anti-hijacking techniques.

But Monday afternoon, French law enforcement sources dropped a bombshell by leaking the results of a post-mortem examination that found 1.75 grams of alcohol per liter in Paul's blood--more than three times the legal limit here.

Although the U.S. alcohol blood-level measures are expressed differently from those in France, the numbers are directly proportional. For instance, the legal level of intoxication for driving in the state of California is 0.08%--which is 80 milligrams of alcohol per 100 milliliters of blood. The reported amounts of alcohol in Paul's blood would be expressed in American terms as his having a .175% blood alcohol level.

Terrance Schiavone, president of the National Commission Against Drunk Driving in Washington, estimated that it would take a 160-pound man "between eight and nine drinks in one hour on an empty stomach" to reach that level of intoxication. And for every hour that passes, a motorist loses the effect of one drink. "If he's drinking from maybe 7 p.m. to midnight--and presumably he's eating--to maintain that level at that late hour [of the crash], that's just an enormous amount of alcohol," Schiavone said. "I think the whole thing goes to show his whole sense of judgment was impaired."

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