WHO SHARES THE BLAME?

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Princess Diana's death was one of those large events that happen in an instant, like the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, leaving everyone to grope for some explanation of how a whole world of certainties can be undone so quickly. Everywhere that Diana's name is known, which is most places, people are trying to comprehend the events that led to her death and wishing they could reach back somehow to change them--to fend off the paparazzi, maybe to find a different driver for Diana's car, or even just to buckle her seat belt.

So who bears what part of the blame for her death? From the start, the chief suspects have been the paparazzi. Nine photographers and one photo-agency motorcycle driver were arrested and released last week. Police say others who fled the crash are still at large. When French prosecutors complete their investigation, they will decide whether to charge some or all of them with involuntary manslaughter and failure to provide aid at the scene of an accident. Mohammed al Fayed, Dodi's father, the parents of Henri Paul, the Fayed security man who was driving that night and died in the crash, and the Spencers, Diana's kin, have all taken steps to become civil parties to the French investigation.

But each of the photographers has his own story to tell. One of them, Jacques Langevin, a highly respected war photographer who works for the Sygma agency, says he never followed the car but took pictures outside the hotel, then headed off to a dinner party only to come upon the crash scene while driving across town. Nikola Arsov of Sipa, another agency, says he also came upon the accident scene by chance after following the decoy cars sent out by the hotel. "I took five or six photos, but I forgot to turn on the flash and they didn't come out," he says. The photographers who admit to chasing the car claim they were hundreds of yards behind when it crashed.

That picture is contradicted, however, by a man who told French police that at the tunnel entrance he saw the black Mercedes surrounded by motorcycles, one of which appeared to cut it off just before the crash. The witness, Francois Levi, who was driving with his family that night, says he entered the tunnel two cars ahead of Diana and Dodi. "When the motorcycle cut in front of [Diana's car]," he says, "I saw a large white flash."

Judicial sources told TIME they are examining what appears to be a fragment of the sedan's side mirror. It was found at the scene a considerable distance behind the wreckage, which suggests that the car might have made hard contact with something just before it spun out of control. Investigators wonder if that something was the handlebar of a paparazzo's motorcycle. All the same, insists Goksin Sipahiouglu, head of the Sipa photo agency, it would have been pointless for the photographers to catch the Mercedes or pull alongside it to take pictures. "A moving photo of a car with tinted windows would have no value at all," he says.

The story of a car recklessly pursued by bloodthirsty photographers has been complicated by questions about whether the driver was drunk and speeding. Police lab tests performed after the accident show that Henri Paul had nearly four times the legal limit of alcohol in his blood, the equivalent of a bottle and a half of wine. Friends say Dodi would never have permitted reckless driving. The Fayeds are aggressively refuting the idea that Paul, the hotel's deputy chief of security, was too drunk to drive. If true, it would leave them with some responsibility for allowing him to take the wheel. At a London press conference last week, an al Fayed spokesman introduced a professor of forensic medicine from the University of Glasgow, Peter Vanezis, to raise the O.J. question: Could the blood samples used by police have been contaminated? Though he offered no evidence that any contamination had taken place, his appearance may have been a signal of the legal course the Fayeds will take. Family representatives also produced a 26-minute videotape, edited from two hours by the Fayeds, taken by hotel security cameras. It partly shows that, at least when he took off from the hotel, Paul accelerated at a moderate rate.

The groundwork for Diana's death may actually have been laid years ago, when she decided to give up the around-the-clock British security she had enjoyed as a royal princess, a move opposed by Scotland Yard. After separating from Prince Charles, Diana was eager to regain some semblance of a normal life. Though she used official bodyguards at public events or when she was with her sons, she preferred to move around on her own. On the night of her death, Diana was entirely in the safekeeping of the Fayeds. She was not represented by anyone in her own employ, someone who might have raised objections to the arrangements being made to drive her away from the hotel.

Diana was probably inclined to trust a great deal in Dodi. The pair had just completed a 10-day cruise in the Mediterranean on the Jonikal, the Fayed family yacht. At 3:15 p.m. Saturday, after a flight from Sardinia in a private jet belonging to Harrods, the al Fayed-owned London department store, they arrived at Le Bourget Airport, near Paris. They were met at the airport by Paul, who drove them into town, stopping first at Dodi's apartment near the Arc de Triomphe, then moving on to the Ritz, where they settled down briefly in the $2,000-a-night Imperial Suite.

From the moment the couple arrived, the paparazzi were on to their scent. When Diana headed out for some shopping on the Champs-Elysees, the photographers surrounded the Range Rover that was ferrying her around. Later, after their car pulled up in front of Dodi's apartment, the paparazzi descended again, and one of the Fayed bodyguards pushed a photographer and hit two others.

Cameras were nothing new in Diana's life. But their intrusion may have seemed even more intolerable last week, when she was settling into a new, deepening relationship with Dodi. Before dinner, Diana called Richard Kay, a favorite reporter for London's Daily Mail, to tell him she was planning to withdraw from her public duties around November. Hussein Yassin, a Saudi relative of Dodi's, who spoke to him at the Ritz earlier in the day, says Dodi confided that they had decided to marry.

The Fayed family says Diana had given Dodi a pair of cuff links that belonged to her late father and a gold cigar clipper with a tag inscribed WITH LOVE FROM DIANA. Dodi had written a poem for Diana, had it engraved on silver and placed beneath her pillow at his apartment. At their last dinner together, on Saturday, he presented her with a $205,400 diamond ring that he had arranged to be made by Albert Repossi, a Paris jeweler. Was it an engagement ring? "He told me how much he was in love with the princess," Repossi said later. "He wanted to spend the rest of his life with her."

He did, but the time was short. Dodi and Diana had an 8:30 reservation that night at Benoit, a trendy one-star restaurant near the Place des Vosges. Sometime after 9 p.m., the couple headed off to dinner. Realizing en route that their plans for a quiet meal at Benoit would be spoiled by the photographers piling up outside the restaurant, Dodi suddenly opted to return to the marbled pillars and plush carpeting of the Ritz, where hotel security could be counted on to fend off the photographers.

Or so he thought. When their Mercedes pulled up in front of the hotel's main entrance in the Place Vendome at about 9:45, some paparazzi were already there, causing the couple to wait several minutes in the car before getting out. A visibly flustered Dodi exchanged some heated words with them before disappearing through the revolving door. Even at the hotel's two-star restaurant Espadon (French for "swordfish"), the stares of fellow diners made Dodi uncomfortable. The couple were all the more eye-catching in the formal Espadon because they were still wearing the casual clothes--jeans and cowboy boots for him, white slacks and a blazer for her--that would have been suited to Benoit, a bistro. After just 10 minutes, at Dodi's insistence, the couple transferred back to their Imperial Suite to finish their meal.

Meanwhile, a call was put through to Paul, who three hours earlier had gone home to the modest apartment on the rue des Petits-Champs he shared with his mother. A onetime French air force officer, he had worked at the hotel for 11 years. Though he had taken two special driving courses at Mercedes headquarters in Stuttgart, he apparently did not have the professional chauffeur's license that French law requires. Acquaintances last week told reporters he had once been a heavy drinker, though a Ritz employee claimed that over the past year Paul's drinking had slowed down. The Fayed family insists that no one on the hotel staff saw any sign that Paul was drunk. But French and British papers last week carried anonymous quotes from people described as Ritz employees who said it was obvious he arrived at the hotel intoxicated. In the French daily Liberation, one says he arrived "overexcited and drunk as a pig."

By the time Diana and Dodi's last meal ended, 20 or more photographers were still waiting outside the hotel. Inside, it was decided that Dodi's Mercedes and the black Range Rover that Diana had used for shopping, both cars familiar to the paparazzi, would be used as decoy vehicles to lure them away. To complete the illusion, Dodi's regular driver was assigned to the Range Rover. Meanwhile, Dodi, Diana and a Fayed bodyguard, Trevor Rees-Jones, 29, would be driven away by Paul in a smaller Mercedes 280 leased by the hotel. At 12:20 a.m. Paul pulled that car up to a rear entrance of the hotel off the narrow rue Cambon. "I saw happiness in their faces," says a woman who watched the couple exit the hotel that night. "They were laughing."

Fayed spokesmen deny the claim that as he drove away, Paul taunted the paparazzi with "You won't catch us." A few paparazzi followed the decoy cars, but others soon spotted the car carrying Diana and Dodi and took pursuit. In an interview with Liberation, the photographer Langevin said that after the Mercedes left the Ritz, it proceeded normally, along with its entourage of paparazzi on motorbikes, until it reached a traffic light at the Place de la Concorde, a few blocks away. "Everybody stopped as usual at the red light," he said. "That's when the Mercedes took off with a roar before the light turned green, racing toward the embankment road."

On the straightaway of the riverside drive, Paul could have picked up speed. How much speed? Initial reports that the speedometer was frozen on impact at 120 m.p.h. are denied by the Fayed family, who say the speedometer was at zero. French police refuse to confirm officially either claim, and auto experts say the postcrash position of a speedometer needle is an unreliable indicator of a car's final velocity. Partly on the basis of the condition of the car at impact, police speculate that the Mercedes arrived at the tunnel entrance--where the roadway bends and dips sharply to the left--at between 80 and 100 m.p.h. The car appears to have first scraped the right side of the tunnel, then rocketed left into one of the concrete support posts about 100 ft. inside the tunnel. It slammed one more time into the tunnel wall before spinning to a stop.

Paul, 41, died instantly. His body, thrust halfway through the windshield, leaned against the horn, which wailed bleakly out of the wreckage. Rees-Jones, the only passenger wearing a seat belt, was alive but badly hurt, his jaw shattered and his tongue reportedly severed. If Diana had been wearing a seat belt, would she have survived? Though the front of the car was crushed, the rear passenger compartment, in which she and Dodi were riding, was not. She came to rest in the footwell, slumped so that she was facing toward the rear of the car with her head leaning against the right side door. A trail of blood descended from her right ear. Dodi, already dead, was lying prone across the rear seat.

Frederic Mailliez, a French physician who came upon the accident scene by chance, says he found Diana unconscious but "moaning and gesturing in every direction." There was another sound in the tunnel that night: the whirr and click of paparazzi cameras, like little guillotines. Mailliez says that when he arrived, 10 or 15 photographers were already at work. First to arrive were Romuald Rat, 24, of the Gamma agency, and Christian Martinez, 41, of Angeli. Rat insists that he tried to help by opening the car's right rear door and feeling Diana's pulse. "I saw the princess sitting on the floor, her back to me," he told French television. "I said in English to stay calm, that I was there, that help would arrive." Martinez started snapping pictures as soon as he reached the scene. According to the French police report, he told an officer, "You are pissing me off. Let me do my work. At least at Sarajevo the cops let us work." Though both were released on bail, they are the only two photographers who are denied the right to work at their profession until the investigation is over.

If it follows the example of most such investigations, the French inquiry into the accident will take two months. British authorities are also expected to open a probe. For now, Rees-Jones, the only survivor, is too badly injured to speak. No one knows what he will be able to remember, or if, as an employee of the Fayeds, he can be counted on to recall any events of that night that might prove embarrassing to the family. Even then, there is one question no investigation may be able to answer: Why did Dodi or Diana think it necessary to go to such lengths to avoid the photographers that night? And who ordered, or permitted, the driver to speed?

Meanwhile, in the absence of final explanations, there are the conspiracy theories. The Internet, naturally, is full of them. Everywhere in the Arab world, where Dodi's relationship with Diana had become a source of national pride, there is speculation that a British plot killed the princess to prevent her from marrying an Egyptian. It's more likely that the Windsors may have been thinking that marriage to Dodi, a man routinely described as a foreign playboy, would have been a public-relations blunder for Diana and a badly needed plus for them. For once it would make their tweedy rectitude seem appealing to the British public. When compared to the chaotic sequence of greed and blundering that took Diana's life, the thought of a well-organized conspiracy would be a comfort.