by Melanie Bromley | Thu., Mar. 16, 2017 4:00 AM
The royal trip will take place over two days, during which the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge will aim to strengthen relations between France and a post-Brexit Britain. But its significance extends way beyond diplomacy. By revisiting the place where Princess Diana was killed in a catastrophic car accident, William has finally decided to face the most painful memory from his childhood.
At present the schedule for William and Kate's Paris trip does not include a visit to The Flame of Liberty, a place which has become an unofficial mecca for thousands of Diana fans due to its location at the entrance of the Pont de l'Alma tunnel, where the fatal crash occurred. But for the royal couple, even being in the City of Light is sure to bring to the surface painful memories of the tragic circumstances surrounding Diana's death.
The details of that night in August 1997 remain as hard to fathom today as they did during that hot Parisian summer. The People's Princess had spent the previous week on vacation in Sardinia with her new boyfriend, Dodi Fayed. She had only been dating him for a month, and he was somewhat of a rebound fling for the 36 year old divorcée. After separating from Prince Charles in 1992, her only serious relationship had been with heart surgeon Hasnat Khan, a man friends later described as the love of her life.
AP Photo/Patrick Bar-Nice Matin
But after a two-year undercover relationship, Khan had refused to marry Diana and so she had ended things, instead turning to the ultimate distraction: a rich playboy with his own 200-foot yacht. Diana's decision to seek solace in the arms of Dodi, and make Khan jealous in the process, ended up having disastrous consequences felt the world over.
Before returning to London from their Mediterranean cruise, the new couple decided to spend one last night alone in Paris and Dodi had a big surprise up his sleeve. At 6 p.m. on Aug. 30 he paid a visit to a nearby jewelry store and picked up an expensive diamond ring which was inscribed with the words, "Tell Me Yes."
JACQUES DEMARTHON/AFP/Getty Images
That same evening, after dinner in the Imperial Suite at the Hôtel Ritz Paris (which was and is still owned by Dodi's father, Mohamed Al-Fayed), the glamorous pair started to make preparations to retire back to his nearby apartment just off the Champs-Élysées. But rampant rumors about an impending engagement had hit the press and the swarm of paparazzi that usually followed in Diana's shadow had doubled in size. To avoid the lenses, the couple, accompanied by their driver and bodyguard, opted to attempt to dodge them by using the back exit of the hotel instead.
But that ended up being a fatal mistake. It took just five minutes for the black Mercedes they were traveling in to leave the Ritz and crash horrifically into the 13th pillar of the Alma tunnel.
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Emergency services spent half an hour cutting Diana free from the mangled wreck of the car. By the time she arrived at the hospital she had already suffered a heart attack. For the next two hours doctors frantically performed open heart massage, doing everything they could to keep her alive, but the force of the crash had been too much. At 4 a.m. local time on Aug. 31, 1997, the woman who was once destined to become Queen was dead.
Only Dodi's bodyguard, Trevor Rees-Jones, survived (Dodi and his chauffeur died at the scene). To this day Rees-Jones insists his only memory of the accident is Diana calling out her boyfriend's name seconds after her car had made contact with the concrete pillar.
Dodi never got the chance to give Diana the ultimate token of his love. The ring he had purchased hours before was discovered in his apartment a few days later. It was accompanied by a receipt confirming it was indeed intended as an engagement ring.
The years that followed were full of intense investigations by French and British authorities, and many more conspiracy theories. It also marked the beginning of the search for a mysterious white Fiat Uno which had collided with the doomed vehicle seconds before impact. To this day, neither the Fiat Uno or its driver has been found.
It took 11 years for the case to be closed. A long final inquest ruled Diana was unlawfully killed due to a combination of speeding, a paparazzi chase, her driver being over the legal alcohol limit and the princess not wearing a seat belt. In a statement released soon after, Princes William and Harry acknowledged they accepted the final verdict and thanked the Parisian people who had witnessed the shocking accident and its aftermath. "The two of us would like to express our most profound gratitude to all those who fought so desperately to save our mother's life on that tragic night," the brothers said.
Meanwhile, Dodi's father refused to accept the verdict and instead maintained his belief his son and Diana were killed under more suspicious circumstances.
For William and Harry, who were just 15 and 12 at the time, their mother's passing forced them to truly understand their fate and what it meant to be a royal. Just a week after her death, they had to put their public duty before private pain and walk behind Diana's coffin as a world in mourning looked on.
Their allegiance to the crown continued in the decade that followed and her name was rarely mentioned in public. But in recent years, there's been a seismic shift in their willingness to open up about what was undoubtedly the most difficult years of their life. Rather, they have become determined to help anyone who has gone through a similar experience. The days of hiding their secret suffering are over.
Press Association via AP Images
When William took his beloved wife to the Taj Mahal in India last year, and posed for photographs on the bench now named after his late mother, it was a strategic move. By sitting in the exact same place Di had perched on while her own marriage to Prince Charles was crumbling, William was reminding us all that his mom's sadness could be replaced by more joyful memories.
Revisiting the city where Diana took her last breath is part of that same journey. While it will likely be painful for him, it will also serve to remind us of his devotion to a woman whose life and death galvanized the world. Ultimately it was not just Princess Diana's immense love which shaped him into a future king, but also the heartbreak he suffered when he lost her.
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