The woman was curled up on the floor of a mangled Mercedes, unconscious and struggling to breathe. The French doctor had no idea who she was and focused on trying to save her.
Twenty-five years later, Frédéric Mailliez is still marked by what happened in the Alma tunnel in Paris on August 31, 1997 – and the realization that he was one of the last people to have saw Princess Diana alive.
« I realize my name will forever be attached to that tragic night, » Mailliez, who was returning from a party when he came across the car crash, told The Associated Press. « I feel somewhat responsible for his final moments. »
As Britain and Diana’s admirers around the world mark a quarter of a century since her death, Mailliez recounted the aftermath of the accident.
That night, Mailliez was driving through the tunnel when he saw a smoking Mercedes almost split in two.
« I walked over to the wreckage. I opened the door and looked inside, » he said.
What he saw: « Four people, two of whom were apparently dead, no reaction, no breathing, and the other two on the right side were alive but in serious condition. The front passenger was screaming, he was breathing. He could wait a few minutes. And the passenger, the young woman, was kneeling on the floor of the Mercedes, her head down, she was having trouble breathing. She needed help fast.
He ran to his car to call emergency services and grab a breathing bag.
« She was unconscious, » he said. « Thanks to my breathing bag (…) she regained a little more energy, but she couldn’t say anything. »
The doctor would later discover the news – along with the rest of the world – that the woman he treated was Diana, Britain’s national treasure adored by millions.
« I know it’s surprising, but I didn’t recognize Princess Diana, » he said. « I was in the car in the back seat helping. I realized she was very beautiful, but my attention was so focused on what I needed to do to save her life, I didn’t didn’t have time to think, who was that woman. »
« Someone behind me told me the victims spoke English, so I started speaking English, said I was a doctor and called the ambulance, » he said. « I tried to comfort her. »
As he worked, he noticed the flash of camera bulbs, paparazzi gathered to document the scene. A British investigation revealed that Diana’s driver, Henri Paul, was drunk and driving at high speed to escape chasing photographers.
Mailliez said he had « no complaints » about the photographers’ actions after the crash. « They didn’t stop me from having access to the victims. … I didn’t ask them for help, but they didn’t interfere with my work. »
Firefighters quickly arrived and Diana was taken to a Paris hospital, where she died a few hours later. His companion Dodi Fayed and the driver also died.
“It was a huge shock to learn that she was Princess Diana and that she passed away,” Mailliez said. Then doubt set in. « Did I do everything I could to save her? » Did I do my job well? he wondered. « I checked with my medical teachers and I checked with the police investigators, » he said, and they agreed he had done everything he could.
The anniversary brings those memories back to life again, but they also come back “every time I walk through the Alma tunnel,” he said.
As Mailliez spoke, standing at the top of the tunnel, cars rushed past the pillar where she had crashed, now bearing a stenciled drawing of Diana’s face.
The nearby Flame of Liberty monument has become a memorial site attracting Diana fans of all generations and nationalities. She became a timeless figure of emancipation and a fashion icon even for those born after her death.
Irinia Ouahvi, a 16-year-old Parisian visiting the flame, said she knew Diana through TikTok videos and through her mother.
« Even with her style, she was a feminist. She defied royal etiquette, wearing biker shorts and casual pants, » Ouahvi said.
Francine Rose, a 16-year-old Dutch girl who stopped at the Diana memorial on a bike trip to Paris, learned about her story through « Spencer, » a recent film starring Kristen Stewart.
« She’s an inspiration because she was in the strict household, the royal family, and just wanted to be free, » Rose said.
Nicolas Garriga and Jeffrey Schaeffer contributed to this report