The dozen men and women came tumbling out of two large, metallic-white buses that pulled up beside the French Navy's headquarters on the Place de la Concorde in central Paris. First out onto the sidewalk was a white-haired gentleman with several folders tucked under his arm. He was followed by 11 slightly disoriented people whose appearance of confusion increased as they became surrounded by scores of onlookers appearing out of nowhere. A burly woman with a bright orange "police" armband then began barking "You can't stay here!" at the gawkers, while impressive-looking male colleagues formed a human cordon to make sure the smaller group from the bus was insulated from the assembled crowd. Suddenly, this no longer looked like the usual arrival of tourist buses and their cargo of bustling sightseers.
Instead it was a chance encounter with the British coroner's inquiry into the death of Princess Diana and the press horde that will dog its every step until it wraps up its two-day Paris visit on Tuesday. Led by magistrate Scott Baker, the 11 British jurors were retracing the final movements by Diana and companion Dodi Al Fayed ahead of their fatal car crash in August 1997. The current investigation comes at the behest of Dodi's father, Mohammed Al Fayed, who insists his son and Diana were killed in a plot by the royal family and secret services to prevent the couple's impending marriage. Those charges have been rebuffed by an official French investigation and at least two U.K. rulings that said the deadly crash was an accident. Still, this new inquiry was ordered convened and it trip to Paris slated as part of its examination.
After seeing previously undisclosed (and unremarkable) security camera video of Diana and Al Fayed and receiving details about that fatal night during briefings in London last week, the six women and five men accompanied Judge Baker to Paris Monday to get a firsthand view of the route that led the couple to their deaths. That journey began at the swank Ritz Hotel on the Place Vendome, and continued to the Place de la Concorde and the unscheduled rendezvous with the press pack waiting to pounce. The jurors were then driven by bus down the long, straight expressway that eventually dips underground at the Pont d'Alma the tunnel where Diana's car struck a pillar that killed both her and al-Fayed. After reexamining the tunnel in darkness Monday night, the group was set on Tuesday to then visit the hospital where Diana was pronounced dead.
Despite the surrounding hype, chances are neither the British inquiry nor their eyeballing of the Parisian venues Diana sped through before the crash will shed any new light on what happened that August night ten years ago. "We know what caused her death: it's been catalogued in minute detail by investigators in both countries," says one slightly disgusted French justice official when asked about this week's visit to Paris by the jurors. "Case closed move on." He goes on: "The official logic is by giving them the visual framework and time-span they all fit into, [the jurors] will better understand and mentally arrange all the complex details they'll be given about the crash." Then the official grouchily adds his personal analysis for the visit. "People can't get enough of Diana, so they keep coming back to her through the crash," he says. "Come see me in another 10 years, and I'll bet something similar to this will still be going on."