It was 19 years ago this week that Princess Diana of Great Britain was killed in a car crash in a Paris tunnel. It was 19 years ago next week that Mother Teresa of Calcutta died. Their twin deaths triggered one of the more bizarre episodes in my journalistic career.
Labor Day weekend in 1997 had been peaceful and pleasant. August 31 fell on a Sunday that year. My wife and I were at our neighbor’s home enjoying a bar-b-que and a dip in their swimming pool. Some time during the late afternoon I ran home, next door, to change into dry clothes.
When I entered our house, I noticed the little red light on our phone answering machine was blinking. Remember, this was way before smart phones and texting. Listening to the message, I heard my boss at ABC News Radio say that Princess Diana had been in a serious car crash and instructed me to call the newsroom as soon as possible. When I did, the boss, Chris Berry, told me that Diana had been critically injured and, at the time, it was unclear whether she would live. Then he said, “We need you to get to Paris!” I said, “Sure. When?” Chris said as soon as possible. He told me the staff was checking on available flights and he would get back to me.
I returned to our neighbor’s house and told my wife, and everyone else there, “Hey, guess what? I’m going to Paris.” After a moment or two of silence, they all started laughing. “Yeah, right,” they said. “Have another hotdog!”
“No, really!” I protested. “I have to go back home and pack, right now.” Then I told them what had happened and the laughing stopped. My neighbor wondered how I was going to get there and didn’t I have to make plans and didn’t I have stuff scheduled to do during the following week and wasn’t all this happening too quickly? My wife, long since accustomed to life married to a journalist, just shook her head and told our friend not to fret. This happens all the time.
Returning to our house, I called the ABC newsroom back and was told the next direct flight to Paris wasn’t until six o’clock the following morning out of John F. Kennedy airport. “OK,” I said, thinking this gave me more time to get ready. “What’s the airline,” I asked? “Air France,” came the answer. “All right, which flight?” I remember there was the just the slightest pause. Then Chris said, “The Concorde.” I thought I heard envy in his voice.
The Concorde. This was three years before the Concorde crash in 2000 and, at the time, was considered among the safest planes in the world. It was also the fastest passenger plane in the sky. It could travel at more than twice the speed of sound, more that 1300 hundred miles per hour. This would be the second time I would fly aboard a supersonic passenger jet. The first time was with Pope John Paul II several years earlier. But that is a story for another blog.
When I arrived at JFK airport early the next morning, I went straight to the Air France counter and informed the ticket agent that I had a seat booked on the Concord. After checking her computer, she said, “Yes, Mr. Hickey. We have your name here. That will be four thousand dollars. How would you like to pay?” I think I blinked a few times and finally stammered, “Four thousand? Hasn’t it already been paid?”
In those days, when we were assigned stories to cover in distant locations, the company’s travel office would make the flight arrangements and prepay the tickets. The Princess Diana story was breaking so rapidly, plus the fact that it was a holiday weekend, it meant no one had taken care of that little detail. Well, I thought, I have to get to Paris. So I pulled out my credit card and handed it to the agent, thinking this is one expense report I would turn in very quickly for reimbursement.
After securing my ticket, I called the newsroom and informed the assignment manager on duty, Jon Newman, that the flight was on time and that I was about to board. Jon said word had now come through that Diana had died and he asked me to call again as soon as I landed at Charles deGaulle Airport in Paris. I told him I would.
A short time later, the Air France Concord was rumbling down a taxiway. I say “rumbling” because, in truth, the Concord wasn’t all that comfortable. It could accommodate around a hundred passengers. The seats were small, the aisle was narrow. The Concord, really, looked like an out-sized silver pencil with wings and a funny looking nose. But it was fast. Really, really fast. That made it cool.
We took off, well, like a rocket, quickly leaving the New York landscape far below. The plane had a digital Mach Meter mounted on the front bulkhead so we could see how fast we were flying. It was fascinating to watch the numbers increase from Mach .4 to Mach .6 to Mach .8 and, finally, Mach 1, the speed of sound! By the way, when you break the sound barrier, you don’t hear anything. At least I didn’t. No big boom. No big shaking of the plane. When you are faster than the speed of sound, the noise is all behind you.
Exactly three hours and 21 minutes later, we were wheels down at Charles deGaulle. While waiting for the luggage to arrive, I called the newsroom again. Jon answered. “Hey, Jon, it’s Hickey,” I said. “What?” Jon exclaimed. I could feel him looking at a clock. “Haven’t you left yet? What’s the problem?”
“Jon,” I said, “I’m in Paris. I’m at Charles deGaulle, waiting for my bags.” Jon was stunned. “You’re there? Already? Holy Cow!” Or something like that.
The next few days were spent covering the story of the crash, how it had happened, the investigation, finding out information about the paparazzi who had chased Diana and her companion Dodi Al Fayed in their chauffeured limo, which crashed in a Paris tunnel at a very high rate of speed. Soon, however, the focus of the story moved to plans for Diana’s Royal funeral, and I moved from Paris to London.
On the day of the funeral, my radio colleagues and I covered the event with live reports throughout the day, describing the majestic and solemn ceremony. The day before, September 5, 1997, the world got word that another woman of fame had died. Mother Teresa, who some call the world’s most famous nun, died of a heart attack at her order’s headquarters in Calcutta, now known as Kolkata. In midst of the hectic preparation for broadcasting Diana’s funeral, one of our managers said to me simply, “Hey, Hickey, do ya like curry?” The day after Diana was laid to rest, I was on my way to India.
The differences between the funerals for Mother Teresa and Princess Diana could not have been more stark. Nor could they have been more similar. Diana’s was full of the might and majesty of a Royal Funeral. Heads of state from around the world attended. Mother Teresa’s funeral was simple and austere, as was her life. She, too, was surrounded by influential world and religious leaders. But she was also surrounded by the poor to whom she had devoted her life. It was in the dignity and the love shared by so many that their funerals were so similar.
That is why, nearly two decades after their deaths, Princess Diana is remembered so fondly by her subjects not only in Great Britain, but throughout the world. And that is why Mother Teresa, who at her funeral mass was called “God’s gift to Calcutta and the world,” has been canonized as a Saint by Pope Francis.