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Survivor Can't Recall Paris Crash

Europe: Investigators question bodyguard for first time in accident that killed Diana. In England, Prince Charles expresses pride at how his sons are coping with mother's death.

September 20, 1997|JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PARIS — He was supposed to dispel the many lingering mysteries about how Princess Diana died, but bodyguard Trevor Rees-Jones, sole survivor of the high-speed auto crash that killed her, told investigators Friday that he cannot remember what happened, official sources said.

The former British paratrooper, 29, was badly disfigured in the Paris wreck nearly three weeks ago and underwent a 10-hour operation Sept. 4 to reconstruct his lower jaw and much of his face.

French authorities had hoped that the injured Briton would be able to describe what happened in a tunnel by the River Seine in the early hours of Aug. 31 and whether another vehicle might have been involved. They also want to know more about Henri Paul, the driver of the Mercedes-Benz carrying Diana and her companion, Dodi Fayed. Post-mortem tests show that Paul was legally drunk at the time of the crash.

Herve Stephan, an investigating magistrate, and a Paris police detective visited the intensive-care ward on the second floor of La Pitie-Salpetriere Hospital, where Rees-Jones has been under care, and quizzed the bodyguard for the first time Friday.

A source close to the investigation said Rees-Jones answered several questions during the half-hour session but could not remember anything that transpired after he and the others got into the Mercedes-Benz outside the Hotel Ritz.

As for Paul, he appeared "very fine" to Rees-Jones as he took the wheel, the source told the French news service Agence France-Presse. Three post-mortem examinations established that the driver, the No. 2 security official at the Ritz, was more than three times over the blood-alcohol limit set by French law.

Diana, Paul and Fayed--Rees-Jones' boss--were killed when the powerful sedan slammed into a concrete pillar at a speed estimated at a minimum of 85 mph and perhaps much more.

Rees-Jones, the only passenger whose seat belt was fastened, suffered severe facial and chest injuries, including punctured lungs.

When questioned Friday, he did remember that Diana and Fayed were heading for an apartment that Fayed owned near the Arc de Triomphe, the source said.

Sources said Stephan will interrogate Rees-Jones again later in the hope that he can recall more.

One Paris neurologist, Dr. Philippe Lacert of Lariboisiere Hospital, said it might be "12 to 15 months, or even two years" before the bodyguard's memory returns.

However, another French neurologist, who requested anonymity, said the amnesia could well be permanent.

"It's a bit like a computer breakdown: If the electricity stops, what hasn't been stored can't be recovered," the neurologist said, referring to the trauma caused by the wreck.

A rugby and swimming buff described by a former service buddy as "strong as an ox," Rees-Jones was discharged from the British army in August 1992 after a five-year stint. He served in Northern Ireland and in Operation Desert Storm during the Persian Gulf War.

The former paratrooper became one of the bodyguards for Fayed's family, headed by Dodi's billionaire father, Mohammed, the owner of Harrods department store in London and the Ritz. Assigned to protect the elder Fayed's first-born son, Rees-Jones jokingly became known as "Dodi's shadow."

In 1995, Rees-Jones married a childhood sweetheart, Susan, whom he had met as a schoolboy 18 years ago. The couple recently separated, but Susan flew to Rees-Jones' bedside after the accident. So did Rees-Jones' mother and stepfather, who were present during Friday's questioning, the British Embassy here said.

On Tuesday, the hospital said Rees-Jones' condition had improved markedly, that he had regained consciousness and that a lung infection had been brought under control.

The bodyguard, whose jaw had been wired shut, was taken off artificial respiration, and he was said to be capable of communicating for the first time since the accident, though he reportedly tired quickly.

In recent days, French police have been investigating what they say is a chance that another car--a dark Fiat Uno--may have played a role in the crash.

In the tunnel, they say, detectives found shards of a red taillight belonging to such a vehicle, and the Mercedes bears scratches and traces of dark paint on the front right fender.

According to police, there is a chance that the speeding Mercedes struck a Fiat in the slow lane, then went out of control and crashed into the post in the median. Then again, they stress, the taillight fragments may have come from an earlier accident.

During Friday's interrogation, sources said, Rees-Jones could not say whether another vehicle might have been involved.

In any event, police and Stephan reportedly now doubt that a pursuing group of photographers caused Paul to lose control of his car. Nine photographers and a photo agency motorcyclist are still being investigated on potential charges of involuntary manslaughter and failing to assist the victims of an accident.

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