Saturday, October 19, 2019

The Death of Diana Princess of Wales 1997

Lady Diana Spencer made world headlines in 1981 when she married into the British Royal Family in a blaze of publicity. Prince Charles had won the heart of the young Diana from when she was just 16 years old and just a few years later was to became the Princess of Wales, being immediately adored by the public. Despite what looked like a fairy tale romance, things didn't go well for the couple though, in private their marriage was already having problems. The media, constantly following the couple around wherever they went, documented every part of their life. The birth of their sons William and Harry, the holidays, private lives and even spying on Diana in a gym.

In 1992 it was announced that the Prince and Princess would be separating and four years later were officially divorced. While the Prince had his usual duties to attend to, Diana used the title Princess of Wales to forward her causes that would generate a host of publicity for the good. Running a campaign to ban landmines she was photographed walking through a minefield to highlight this blight on the worlds stage and the injuries to children caught up in the horrors of war.

But it was her love life that became the focus of the press from the moment she split from Charles and they lapped up every morsel of gossip. Links to a heart surgeon, celebrities and members of high ranking military were the usual front pages but when she was seen to be taking a holiday in the summer of 1997 on a yacht with Harrods owner Mohammed al-Fayed the cameras were zooming in to catch every moment. This is where it was confirmed that there was something romantic going on between Diana and al-Fayed's son Dodi.

By now every newspaper was hungry for anything relating to Diana. Unfortunately she was being publicised for her love life instead of the countless charity campaigns she was running and although she was getting good results these stories were put on the shelf so that the scandal-sniffing papers could put gossip on the front pages. Photos of her would fetch a very good price, even more so if they were to catch her doing something romantic with Dodi. A photograph of them both sharing an intimate moment together on the yacht had already gone worldwide.

On 30th August 1997 the couple were in France and were having dinner at the Ritz Hotel in the capital Paris. Still being hounded by the press, they decided just before midnight to head to the apartment where they would be staying. The staff at the Ritz organised for the pair to be let out of the back entrance away from the waiting photographers and a Mercedes was arranged to take them away. A bodyguard, Trevor Rees-Jones would accompany them sat in the front, driven by chauffeur Henri Paul.

Setting off from the Ritz at around 20 past midnight on 31st August the car sped off with paparazzi already giving chase, cameras at the ready. After just a few minutes it became a high speed chase through the streets of Paris. As the car entered the tunnel at the Pont de l'Alma the driver lost control and the car slammed into a concrete pillar causing the entire front of the vehicle to crumple. Within a second the car had spun around and come to rest.

The chasing motorcyclists stopped to help the occupants, but some carried on taking photographs. A severely injured Diana was snapped in the back of the wrecked car, her life in the balance. Emergency services were called and were there within minutes.

She was removed from the car along with the bodyguard who were both still alive, Dodi and the driver Henri Paul were dead. As the ambulances raced to hospital, the first news broke that Diana was seriously injured in a Paris car crash.

By 0400 the fight to save Diana was over, she had succumbed to her injuries. The world soon reeled in shock at the news that this famous, kind, loving Princess, a woman who had dominated the newspapers for years, was now dead.

A replica of the American liberty flame above the tunnel soon became an unofficial memorial to the "peoples princess" and remains so to this day.

The funeral of Diana was a worldwide headline-hitting event, one in which everybody who read about it wanted to know more. TV newsreaders in black ties fought back tears as they read the latest developments. Images of the wrecked car became known almost as much as the woman herself. Public outpourings of grief led to thousands of flowers being laid outside the Royal palaces in London.

As the shock of her death gave way to anger, questions were asked as to how this could have happened. She was only 36 years old and doing great things in the world. Conspiracy theories suggested she was murdered, stories of her being pregnant, engaged and even converting to Islam were rife. Although nobody can stop people believing what they want to believe, there were calls for an inquiry as well as an inquest and both were launched.

A French inquiry in 1999 concluded that the car had been in collision with a Fiat Uno which was never officially located and identified. They went on to say that the cause of the collision was the Mercedes driver being over the legal alcohol limit and losing control of the car.

In 2007 a British inquest opened after a long investigation by the Metropolitan Police and in April 2008 the jury agreed that the three victims were killed as a result of the pursuing vehicles and returned a verdict of unlawful killing. They stated gross negligence of both the paparazzi and driver Henri Paul.

The irony in this tragic event is that the sole survivor, bodyguard Trevor Rees-Jones was sat in the front passenger seat. Despite the negligence of all parties involved, it was down to Diana and Dodi's personal actions that dealt the final blow:

Both died simply because they didn't wear their seat belts.

(Below) Messages are still left at the liberty flame above the tunnel 22 years after her death.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Whitby Lifeboat Disaster 1861

On 9th February 1861 a storm struck the East Yorkshire coast that would leave the town of Whitby grieving for their sons in a disaster that highlighted the bravery of their townsfolk like never before. From around 0830 that morning the town lifeboat, manned by local volunteers, was sent out on several occasions to assist the crews of vessels that had started to wallow in the heavy seas and come aground.

Time after time the lifeboat struggled in the biting cold and freezing seas to rescue the crews and no sooner had they landed back ashore another ship was seen to be in distress. Each time the crews could not simply stand by and let fellow sailors drown and so they gathered themselves together and headed out again despite the weather being appalling. Crowds of onlookers gathered on the seafront to witness the drama and cheer the lifeboat crew as they came ashore with another human cargo of wet but thankful survivors.

By 1400 that afternoon the cargo vessel Merchant went aground and the lifeboat was once again sent out to rescue the crew. But tragically on this occasion their luck ran out. The Whitby Lifeboat was attempting to rescue the Merchant's crew when waves took hold of the boat and threw her 13 occupants into the sea. One of the men, Henry Freeman, was wearing a new design of cork lifejacket and it is thought that this saved his life. When he was rescued it was then found that he was the only survivor.

The deaths of the 12 lifeboatmen left a staggering 46 children without a father and 10 wives without a husband. The town was shocked and immediately went into deep mourning for the heroes of the town. This became an event that would be remembered for decades to come and is still remembered today.

A memorial was placed in The Church of St Mary the Virgin on top of the cliffs overlooking the sea next to the ruins of Whitby Abbey (bottom right). The gravestones of some of the lifeboatmen, in danger of being damaged by weathering and land erosion, were carefully moved and placed up against the church walls in order to save them (below).

The sole survivor Henry Freeman was not put off by this disaster and vowed to continue to head out to sea. In fact he carried on manning the lifeboat and was the coxswain for 22 years, participating in many more rescues which not only earned him medals for bravery but which also led to him being one of the most celebrated and renowned lifeboat members in the history of the RNLI.

Freeman died in 1904 and was buried in Whitby Cemetery, his heroic career etched on his gravestone for all to see. An exhibition of the disaster and the exploits of it's most famous hero can be seen at the Whitby Lifeboat Museum in the town along with a life size statue of him (above).


Sunday, October 13, 2019

Kings Cross Fire 1987

18th November 1987 was just like any other day in London and the commuters rushing to and from the city's underground train network paid no attention to the wooden escalators that carried them from the bustle of the crowds below back to street level. These wooden moving stairs had been around for years, the London Underground being the worlds oldest and largest subterranean railway network and the reason other countries copied the design.

But this evening was very different in what started as just a tiny mishap. Underneath the escalator on the Piccadilly Line lay years of rubbish, dirt and fluff that had built up and all it took was one cigarette or match dropped by a passenger to make its way between the gaps still lit. Initially it would have just smouldered but by 7.30 pm the first reports of smoke started to filter through to staff in the ticket hall above.

Within minutes the London Fire Brigade were called and station was already being evacuated by police via other escalators. The fire still seemed very small and shouldn't take long to extinguish. But within minutes of the teams arrival the fire had consumed the entire escalator and this led to a devastating flash over in the ticket hall above. The blast took everyone by surprise and very quickly became a major incident.

Trains were still coming into the station and the passengers were having to be directed out of the area of the fire, but by now in the chaos there were already 100 injured people being rushed to hospital. Thick smoke was taking over any breathable air and it became a struggle just to get to fresh air. The main hall was now and inferno and it took until the early hours of the morning to finally extinguish the flames and only then the final horror of what happened could be seen. The escalator and ticket hall were a blackened mess and a final count showed that 31 people had lost their lives. One of those who died was one of the Fire Brigade sent to fight the flames. Station Officer Colin Townsley's death came as a huge shock to the emergency services.

The inquiry in the coming months found that the litter and lubricant grease of the escalator had caused the fire to spread, smoking had already been banned following a previous fire years before at another station but it became apparent that this was regularly ignored by travellers passing through. London Underground were heavily criticised in the report and better training in the event of fire was implemented. The wooden escalators were slowly phased out, although the last ones weren't replaced until 2014.

Of the 31 people who died that night, one victim was not identified until 2003 when DNA testing revealed that he was a homeless man who had made Kings Cross his shelter.

Today there are several memorial plaques which commemorate the fire. Three at the station itself (Above left and right) and also one over the road at St Pancras Parish Church (below).

Friday, October 4, 2019

A Very Bad Month For Aviation - August 1985

Since aircraft first starting making their epic journey's there have been accidents. But it was the summer of 1985 that four major air disasters shook the industry, starting with a bomb taking down Air India flight 182 in June with 329 dead, the terrorists have still not been brought to justice.
But in the August of that year there were three major disasters in less than three weeks.

On 2nd August 1985 Delta Airlines flight 191 suffered a bad case of "wind shear" upon the approach to landing at Dallas Fort Worth Airport. The airliner slammed to the ground and burst into flames killing 137 people, incredibly there were 27 survivors (one of those killed was on the ground).

Ten Days later came the worst single plane crash in history. Japan Air Lines flight 123 took off with 524 people on board from Tokyo heading for Osaka. A previous accident had led to a faulty repair to the tail of the aircraft, over the years stress on the repair led to it suddenly giving way and having the entire tail fin rip off in mid flight.

The plane was now out of control, despite the pilots best efforts the Boeing 747 crashed into Mount Takamagahara near Mount Osutaka. Taking several days to get to the crash site, miraculously four survivors were found alive but this remains to this day the worst single airliner crash in history.

Again, ten days after this crash a third airliner disaster hit the headlines.

British Airtours flight KT328 to Corfu was on the runway at Manchester Airport ready to take off of 22nd August 1985. As the plane gathered speed on runway 24 an engine explosion caused black smoke to be seen billowing out of the wing. The plane did have the chance to stop before taking off but the resulting fire engulfed the entire aircraft and killed 55 people. Passengers were forced to jump from wherever they could, in some cases the wing itself.

Never before (or since) have so many air accidents in such a short space of time shocked the aviation industry as this month. Three separate disasters with three separate causes that resulted in the deaths of 712 people.

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Terror in Paris

The French capital Paris is full of memorials and plaques commemorating and remembering events that have occurred, some of which hit the headlines, others which have been forgotten by all those but the few people it affected at the time. On 10th April 2018 my plan was to head into the city early and try and seek out as many as possible. I did not expect to cover as many as I did in one day!
The city itself is hollow, with a Swiss-cheese style set of tunnels and catacombs underneath the streets. Now and again holes will open up to reveal a huge gap in the garden of some unsuspecting resident or inadvertantly swallow up a four storey house as swiftly as a demolition charge had gone off. 
My first visit of the day was to a railway station on the world famous Metro underground. One of the largest subterranean railway networks in the world, the stations have had their fair share of tragedy over the years. 
On 25th July 1995 a bomb exploded on a train on the city's underground rail network killing eight people and injuring over 100 more.

Outside the entrance to the station the bar Le Depart Saint Michel was used as a temporary casualty centre where victims were tended to before being rushed to hospital. If it wasn't for reading the papers regarding the attack from 1995 nobody would ever know this, nothing is here to suggest anything happened here, a memorial plaque lists all the victims near the platform that links Saint Michel to Notre Dame. The attack was blamed on Islamic extremists, several of whom were killed, captured or jailed.

Just yards away from the site of the bombing is the bridge across the River Seine known as the Pont Saint Michel which was the scene of an incident on 17 October 1961 between Algerians protesting against the war and the local police who were sent out to deal with them. Tensions heated up between the two sides which culminated in the extreme heavy handed police not only turning the protest into a battle, but turning the battle into a massacre.

Dozens of Algerians were beaten and thrown over the side of the bridge into the river below. It would be covered up with only rumours circulating as to the extent of this murderous rampage. It would be 1998, thirty seven years after the massacre that the government would acknowledge the deaths of 40 people, the claims that it ran into hundreds has never been fully proven or acknowledged. A plaque on the bridge was opened in 2001 finally commemorating the vast number of unknown victims. To date, nobody has ever been prosecuted for what is now an embarrassing piece of French history.

Away from the Saint Michel area another terrorist bombing bearing the same credentials occurred on 3rd December 1996 at the Gare de Port Royal. In this attack four people were killed, a small memorial plaque on the platform simply states "To the memory of the victims of the bombing of 3rd December 1996."

With the tragedies of the past fading from living memory as the years go by, the events of the present day are forever relived. It was 2015 when Paris was suddenly thrust into the spotlight in two major terrorist attacks that left the country reeling with shock.

On 7th January 2015 two brothers opened fire at the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, a publication that had previously insulted the Prophet Mohammed in an issue and had come under attack several times but nothing too serious. This time it was a full blown terrorist attack by operatives of the group which was by now making it's name as ISIS and launching wave after wave of bombing and gun attacks around the world.

As bullets were sprayed around the building, eleven people were killed before the brothers left the building and headed outside.

In an incredible act of heroism, a police officer confronted them and was shot and injured. What happened next was caught on camera in a scene that was front page news around the world as the brutal terrorists shot him dead as he lay injured.

But the attack continued even after the two men had made their escape. A police officer was shot dead the following day by an accomplice, it soon becoming apparent that there were three or more attackers.

On 9th January two different sieges were taking place, the two brothers in a warehouse with a hostage and the third in a Koser supermarket with customers being held. The resulting hours saw explosions in the supermarket broadcast on live TV, four of the shoppers declared dead as well as all three terrorists. Three days of attacks and the huge manhunt was now officially over.

Raids were carried out and at least one other suspect was identified as having made their escape from the scene. Acts of unity by the people of France saw marches of peace through the streets of Paris like never before. The phrase Je Suis Charlie being adorned on every banner, badge, shirt and flag. The victims of the attacks - 17 in total - were treated as martyrs for the inherent right to freedom of speech.

The street where the Charlie Hebdo office attack took place now has a memorial plaque for the 11 people who died there as well as artwork on the outside walls commemorating them.

The police officer who was shot dead as he lay injured was named as Ahmed Merabet. He was hailed a hero for his part in attempting to take on the gunmen and a plaque now marks the spot where his life was cut short so publicly and tragically.

With the attacks on Charlie Hebdo a bad start to the year, it was celebrations on 13th November when news came through that the notorious ISIS terrorist known as Jihadi John had been killed in an air strike in Syria. He had shot to notoriety when he appeared in videos where he would behead his victims on camera in the name of ISIS.

But this news was overshadowed by what would happen just hours later. That same night Paris suffered one of the worst terrorist attacks to ever hit the western world. A series of gun attacks and suicide bombings struck first at the Stade de France during a friendly football match between France and Germany, attended by President Francoise Hollande. Three bombers and one civilian were killed.

Over the next four hours terrorists continued their murderous rampage at the Cafe Bonne Bierre...
(A memorial plaque over the road from the cafe with a flower bed, left)
La Belle Equipe......

(Another over-the-road plaque, this on the wall of a church left)

Comptoire Voltaire.....

(This plaque has it's own pole....never seen one like this before)

Le Carillion and Le Petit Cambodge......

(Opposite the junction where the two venues cross is a plaque overlooking both)

Finally in the worst of all the attacks that night, they opened fire inside the music venue Bataclan. 

It was here that there was due to be a night of entertainment by the rock band Eagles of Death Metal, as their music boomed out of every speaker the noise was soon overtaken by the sound of gunfire. The resulting siege and bloodbath saw 90 people killed in this one venue alone. 
By around 1am on the morning of 14th November the attacks were over and the cost of the attack was staggering - 130 people were dead. 
At the entrance to the Bataclan today is the smallest of the memorial plaques considering this was the largest of the six attacks.

It soon becomes apparent why this is.....

Directly opposite the venue is a park area where a memorial lists all those killed in the Bataclan attack.
Memorials today are dotted around the city, I managed to visit five of these, the stadium being too far away to visit in my limited time. I am hoping to pay my respects there another day when I return. 

In the coming days and weeks that followed the attacks the Place de la Republique became a central place of mourning. Flowers piled up and messages of grief and solidarity were spread in the tributes that appeared out of nowhere.

It seemed only fitting that once the tributes had been removed a more permanent memorial to the attacks would be placed there in the form of a stone slab (Below).

So ended my tour of the memorials of the French capital. It was both emotional and fascinating to see how the victims of these acts of terror are remembered. The people of Paris have suffered gun massacres, suicide bombings, train crashes, fires and even the death of a Princess. It is inevitable that events like this will happen again in this remarkably strong and resilient city, but the way the people of Paris commemorate it will always have the city set high up there with their people as a place of solidarity and remembrance.

I hope to return to Paris to continue my research and dig deeper into those tragedies which are not yet remembered. Until then we continue to pay our respects to the people who died in the city so that others may live.