At around nine-thirty, the Rover, with Grace at the wheel and Stephanie beside her in the passenger seat, left the Grimaldi property and ventured out onto County Highway 53. The twisting road has over fifty sharp turns, many of them hairpin, and Grace negotiated them at a snail’s pace. During the last five miles, truck driver Yves Raimondo was directly behind the Rover. He watched it make one turn, then another, without incident. But, about two hundred yards before the final and sharpest curve, Raimondo saw the car in front of him zigzag so badly that it almost sideswiped the mountain rocks on the opposite side of the road. Assuming "a lack of attention," Raimondo sounded his horn and, as he expected, the Rover righted itself as it continued down the roadway. Then, to his growing horror, he realized that the car was not slowing down in anticipation of the dangerous turn ahead. "The corner came up," he later said. "I did not see it slow down . . . the brake lights didn’t come on . . . she did not even try to turn and I had the impression that she was going faster and faster . . . [the car] disappeared over the edge."
All of the curves on the Moyenne Corniche have crash barriers, but this one, unlike the others, extends only halfway, because at that point a narrow dirt road runs off the main roadway at right angles. Grace’s car barreled straight ahead, brushed against the edge of the barrier, passed over the entrance to the roadway, and careened off the hillside. It flew a few feet in the air, then crashed through thick underbrush and somersaulted several times before landing on its roof at the edge of a vegetable garden. The police photographs taken immediately after the accident reveal that the car’s right side had been crushed flat in the fall down the hillside; the left-hand, driver’s side of the car wasn’t as badly damaged, and the door had popped open. Steam poured out of the car’s radiator. It was 10:05 A.M.
Stephanie, injured but conscious and able to move, crawled out of the left-hand side of the car just as several residents of the area arrived. Her first words were, "Help my mother . . . My mother is in there—get her out!" Grace was lying on her back amid the car’s jumbled seats, her feet toward the front windshield and her head resting against the back window. There was little blood, but she was only half-conscious and did not respond to shouts.
Stephanie wandered to the steps of the nearby farmhouse, sobbing to the occupants that they must call her father. They didn’t recognize her and asked who her father was. "He’s the Prince. I’m his daughter, Stephanie, and maman is in the car." Calls were made to the gendarmerie and to the palace, and within five minutes two ambulances arrived. The attendants saw that there was no way to extract Grace from the car except to smash the rear window and pull her out through it; they did so. She was obviously very badly injured. Her open eyes were glazed over, a gash ran across her forehead and her right leg lay at an odd angle. She did not respond when spoken to.
Grace and Stephanie, each in a separate ambulance, were rushed to Princess Grace Hospital. Rainier and Albert arrived shortly afterward but were not allowed to see them. Stephanie, the doctors discovered, was suffering from shock, a concussion, and a vertebra fracture that had come perilously close to paralyzing her. Grace’s reactions to light and other stimuli were tested and were negligible, indicating severe brain damage. She was placed on a life-support system, and Dr. Charles Chatelin, head of surgery at the hospital, began four hours of surgery to treat her external wounds—a broken collarbone, broken femur, fractured ribs, severe gash in the forehead, and numerous cuts and bruises. Internally, Grace had sustained damage to her thorax and had a collapsed lung. Chatelin opened both her thorax (to remove blood and to bring air to her lung) and her stomach (to treat internal bleeding).
Her condition continued to deteriorate, however, and her electroencephalogram indicated she was falling into a coma. Dr. Chatelin and Dr. Duplay, head of neurosurgery at Nice Hospital, who had joined his colleague at Grace’s side, realized that a CAT scan of her brain would be necessary. Princess Grace Hospital did not have the machine to do this; the only one in the area was owned by Dr. Michel Mourou in Monaco. Nearly thirteen hours after the accident, Grace was taken to Dr. Mourou’s office on a stretcher. The elevator to his suite wasn’t big enough to accommodate the stretcher, so Grace had to be carried up two flights of stairs. The scan was administered and revealed an area of massive bleeding deep in her brain that had caused extensive damage, and a smaller area of bleeding in the temporal lobe that, the doctors hypothesized, had occurred just before the accident. Grace, they concluded, had suffered a stroke, which may have precipitated the accident, and had sustained such severe brain damage that she was unlikely to live. If she did, she would never again have use of her faculties. Grace was returned to the hospital named for her and was put back on life-support systems as her husband and children stood vigil and prayed for a miracle.
No one but those closest to the family knew the seriousness of the situation. Within hours of the accident, members of the world media descended on Monaco, eager for any detail. Nadia LaCoste, whose seasoned handling of the press had kept many another situation under control, was on vacation, and in her absence the job fell to an inexperienced member of the Grimaldi household. This, it turned out, made a bad situation worse. Pressed for some official word on Grace’s and Stephanie’s conditions and the reason for this seemingly unfathomable accident, the palace aide was unable to get the information he needed, either from Grace’s doctors or from Prince Rainier. Wanting to protect his Prince, and his own job, the aide recalled Rainier’s complaint about press sensationalism: "You have a bump with your car. Five minutes later it has become a bad accident. Next it is really dramatic: the car is wrecked and you are injured. It ends with you being thrown out into the road and killed."
Unwilling to give the press anything "really dramatic," the aide released an unofficial "official statement" that was inaccurate and misleading. Grace, it said, had suffered only some broken bones but "strict observation is necessary to diagnose any secondary complications," and Stephanie had suffered just some bruising. As to the matter of what caused the accident, the Monaco communique was a total fabrication. Perhaps assuming the only logical reason for such an accident must be mechanical failure, Rainier’s aide wrote in his release that Princess Grace had "ascertained a brake failure."
The communique, in the light of subsequent events, gave rise to suspicions among newspeople that there had been a cover-up of the real facts surrounding the accident. Within the next few days, rumors became rampant: Stephanie, under the legal driving age, had actually been driving the car (this rumor was given credence by reports from the first people who arrived at the crash site that Stephanie had crawled out of the driver’s side of the car); Grace had been driving but she and Stephanie had had a violent argument that led her to lose control; Grace had left the palace in a rage after a fight with Prince Rainier and was in no condition to drive; the Rover had been tampered with by the Nice Mafia because Grace had fought to keep them out of Monte Carlo; the car had been whisked away by the palace before the authorities could examine it in order to conceal evidence; Prince Rainier had refused to allow the police to inspect the vehicle.
There is no way—short of a full explanation from Stephanie, which has not been forthcoming—to know what actually took place within the Rover on that tragic Monday. The official version is that Grace suffered a stroke and lost control of the car. What Prince Rainier has said Stephanie told him, however—"Mommy panicked. She didn’t know what to do. She lost control"—would seem to work against such an explanation. Had Grace suffered a stroke, she would likely have blacked out and been unable, as Raimondo testified, to right the car after hearing a horn blast. Stephanie could have done so, but if she had, why didn’t she also either press down on the brakes or attempt to maneuver the curve ahead?
There is so little plausible explanation for the fact that the Rover’s brakes were never used and the car’s trajectory was straight off the cliff that even the argument scenario doesn’t convince; no matter how violently she and Stephanie may have been fighting, Grace surely would have realized that the curve was ahead and been cautious, especially after the near-miss of the zigzagging. The mystery, which may never be solved, is so compelling that more and more fantastic explanations keep popping up. In fact, a Paris stringer for one of the American tabloids, Patrick Wilkins, says, "The consensus among everyone I’ve talked to here in Paris is that Grace was so beside herself with all her problems, and so furious with Stephanie, that she just didn’t care what happened to them anymore. A lot of people are convinced that Grace’s death was a suicide."
That is the one theory that can never be proven, and we may never know the truth of any of them. But other rumors can be laid to rest. Capt. Roger Bencze, who conducted the official investigation into Grace’s accident as a member of the Mentone police force (the town in which the accident occurred) and is now a member of France’s national gendarmerie, has spoken out for the first time for this book. With the confidential investigation file’s depositions and photographs in front of him, Captain Bencze stated firmly that he believes the official version of the accident to be essentially correct, although he adds that "it was wrong for the palace to downplay the injuries."
Bencze stressed that "there was never any attempt to interfere with my investigation. I examined the car at four-thirty on September 13, in the company of the district attorney of Nice and the chief of police of Monaco. My inspection had been approved by the palace and no one tried to influence it. I found that the car had absolutely no mechanical problems. There was no evidence that there had been a fire, as was later suggested, and it was clear that the only possible way for Stephanie to exit was through the driver’s side of the car. The fact that she crawled out of that side would in no way indicate that she was driving—it was the only way she could have gotten out." Examination of the photographs confirmed Bencze’s statements.
Bencze believes that the evidence available could support the explanation that Grace suffered a stroke. "She might have lost awareness momentarily, as if she was falling asleep, and the sound of Raimondo’s horn could have roused her. Then, as the effects of the stroke grew worse, she could have blacked out just before going over the cliff.
"There is no way of knowing for sure, of course, but in my official capacity—and just as a human being—I’m satisfied that there isn’t all that much mystery involved in Princess Grace’s death."
The original communique from Monaco—that Grace had been injured but was doing well—appears to have been not so much subterfuge as uninformed wishful thinking, because it wasn’t only the press who were given this optimistic news, but Grace’s intimates as well, including Nadia LaCoste—who was told that the situation wasn’t bad enough to warrant her immediate return—and the Kellys. Later, reports appeared that Grace’s family in Philadelphia was "furious" with Prince Rainier for "keeping from us" the extent of Grace’s injuries. Lizanne denies this. "When the palace called me right after the accident," she says, "they didn’t know how serious it was. They thought she just had a broken leg, that it was very superficial. They didn’t know how serious the head injury was. When I spoke to Rainier the day she died, he told me it was very serious. But I don’t think even then that he knew just how serious it was. He never kept anything from us."
Grace lingered, falling slowly into an ever deeper coma, throughout the night and morning of September 13-14. Her family —including Caroline, who returned from a trip to England at noon on Tuesday—kept a vigil at her bedside, anxiously conferring with the doctors, embracing one another, trying to hold on to a vestige of hope. At 6 A.M. the oscilloscope monitoring Grace’s brain activity indicated that she was, in all but the most technical sense, dead. Her children kissed her, then left their father to be alone with his wife. At noon Prince Rainier gave the doctors permission to cease artificial life support. At 10:35 that evening, Grace died.