British jurors retrace Diana's final moments

With traffic blocked, jurors in a British inquest ventured by foot into the dark underpass where Princess Diana's Mercedes crashed 10 years ago, coming to a halt before a scarred and dented pillar.

The British jurors, 11 ordinary people, retraced Diana's final moments on Monday, collecting sights and scenes that will help them piece together how she and her boyfriend Dodi Fayed died on Aug. 31, 1997.

No mysteries were solved on Monday's route. Lord Justice Scott Baker, heading the inquest, simply asked jurors to absorb the sights: the back door of the Ritz Hotel, where Diana and her lover slipped away for their fatal, final ride; the flow of traffic on the Place de la Concorde; the slope and twist of the Pont de l'Alma underpass, where their speeding car slammed into the concrete pillar. Driver Henri Paul also died in the crash.

Under British law, inquests are held when someone dies unexpectedly, violently or of unknown causes. It was delayed by two exhaustive investigations, by French and British authorities. Both dismissed conspiracy theories and concluded that the driver was drunk and speeding.

The inquest is to determine when, where and how Diana and Fayed were killed. It opened last Tuesday and was expected to last no more than six months.

Much of Monday's itinerary focused on the underpass, across the Seine River from the Eiffel Tower.

Led by two French police motorcyclists, three gray buses with tinted windows carried jurors, court officials and journalists through the tunnel, once in each direction. Then police cut traffic, and jurors set out on foot for an up-close look at the crash site.

Baker stopped before the tunnel's 13th pillar - where the Mercedes slammed to a stop - and gazed at it silently. A chunk of concrete was gouged off near its base. Baker did not say whether that was a lingering scar from the accident a decade ago - he merely urged jurors to look around.

Many other pillars were badly chipped as well. One column bore recent graffiti, punctuated with a heart. "Lady Diana, we will always love you," a French fan scrawled there Sept. 14.

The goal of Monday's trip was not to answer questions but to familiarize jurors with places and issues that will come up in the inquiry.

After nightfall, the jury followed the route from the scene of the crash to the Pitie Salpetriere Hospital, where Diana died.

Camera crews were posted throughout the capital to capture the buses as they sped around under heavy police escort. Court officials shouted at cameramen to get off the road while jurors studied traffic patterns near the tunnel.

Baker asked everyone to keep in mind that Monday was not necessarily an ordinary day in Paris.

"Members of the jury, it may be that what you're seeing is not entirely natural because of the large number of police and photographers that are present," he said.

Monday's route was marked by a few surreal moments.

As a bus arrived at the Ritz Hotel for the inquest, it collided with its own police outrider, knocking him from his motorcycle. Moments later, a loud bang echoed across the square as a bus tire burst.

Mechanics spent more than half an hour changing the tire, but waiting photographers snapped to life instantly when Posh Spice Victoria Beckham emerged from the Ritz wearing a short black dress, huge sunglasses and stiletto heels.

A decade after the famous crash, global curiosity has accompanied the inquest, and court officials kept details of the visit under wraps until the last moment amid fears of swarming paparazzi similar to those who pursued the couple in their final moments.

Diana, 36, and Fayed, 42, were heading from the Ritz Hotel to Fayed's private Paris home near the Arc de Triomphe when they were killed. Dodi Fayed's father, Egyptian-born billionaire Mohamed al Fayed, has said it was their engagement night.

Mohamed al Fayed claims the couple was murdered in a plot directed by Prince Philip, Queen Elizabeth II's husband, to keep a Muslim out of the royal spheres.

A French investigation concluded the car was traveling at an excessive speed and the driver had a blood alcohol level more than three times the legal limit. Tests showed the presence of two prescription drugs, including the antidepressant Prozac, in his system. The British concurred.

Neither the French nor British investigations have blamed paparazzi pursuing the speeding car for the crash.

On Tuesday, the jury is expected to visit the Ritz Hotel and other locations in Paris. When it returns to London later this week, it will hear from the first French witnesses via a live video link with the Court of Appeal in Paris.

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Author`s name Angela Antonova