Twenty years later, it still seems hard to believe that I was in London to cover the funeral of Princess Diana. And thinking back about those days after her death, I am still struck by one thing in the streets of London – the silence. Walking alongside Diana’s funeral procession, through the crowds that gathered outside of Buckingham Palace, in the throngs that ringed Westminster Abbey, the silence was broken mainly only in one way – by the sound of people crying, overcome with the emotion of the moment.
“All along the funeral route, there was silence, even though hundreds of thousands of people were jammed together,” I said in one of my many live radio reports back in early September of 1997, as I watched the procession move slowly through London.
“The sight of Diana’s coffin, pulled along by horses, cause many onlookers to cry, as their grief poured out after the funeral,” I added, after seeing entire families sobbing as they walked away from the funeral route.
The outpouring of emotion was not just limited to the Brits, as the thousands of international tourists who were in England at the time added their voice as well, creating giant mounds of flowers outside the gates of both Buckingham Palace and Kensington Palace.
It was an interesting time to be a reporter in London. During my stay, a number of people refused to do interviews with me – most were just overcome with grief – but I do remember that a number of others just seemed to want to talk, they wanted to be interviewed.
It was almost like they saw my radio microphone and tape recorder, and decided they needed to say something, to express their grief.
Reading through my reporter notebooks, looking at my photographs, and listening to my radio reports from those days in London, it instantly brought me back to 1997 and that overwhelming feeling of grief – both for those who admired Diana, and even for those who didn’t see themselves as personally invested in the royal family.
Here were three of my live reports from September 6, 1997, the day of the funeral:
The morning of the funeral, I had walked from my hotel – not far from Buckingham Palace – checking out the route, and seeing the thousands of people who stood shoulder to shoulder to get a glimpse of the fallen Princess.
I ended up on the southern side of Hyde Park – close to Kensington Palace, where so many people had also left flowers and memorials to Diana, and where the funeral cortege started its procession to Westminster Abbey, near some giant television screens which were set up to show the funeral proceedings to many thousands of people.
As I said on the radio, the quiet of that day made it feel like we were all inside at a funeral – even with thousands and thousands of people on hand, it was ‘church quiet’ in the streets of London – interrupted every minute by the sound of a single, muffled bell from Westminster Abbey.
As the cortege passed my vantage point, I noted that large numbers of people were silently walking along with the coffin, not necessarily looking at it every step of the way, but simply walking with Diana – one final time.
The crowds became larger and larger as the procession went by Buckingham Palace and then down to Westminster Abbey, the culmination of what had been an unbelievable outpouring of grief in London.
When I thought back about what I experienced during this time in London, the answer was one I remembered immediately – for me as a reporter, my most emotional moment was when I saw Diana’s sons, William and Harry.
Prince William was 15 at the time; Prince Harry was 12, but seemed younger in person.
“God Bless you, William,” a man called out, as the two boys joined their father, Prince Charles, in thanking people who had gathered outside Buckingham Palace.
Buckingham Palace was a main focal point for the thousands who paid their respects – I even have a photo that I took of Queen Elizabeth in the back of her car, being driven through the crowds (back in days of cameras that had real film).
The palace was also a main gathering point for friends of mine from back in D.C. – mainly cameramen – who had been rushed over to London to help with live TV broadcasts in the wake of Diana’s death in Paris.
One of those guys snapped this photo of me – a younger reporter 20 years ago – showing off the two cell phones that I had rented at Heathrow Airport.
A frank admission about September of 1997 – this was not my usual type of story to cover. Those who are familiar with my work know that I am much more at home with the inner workings of Capitol Hill, as I have covered the Congress, elections, politics, and news from the nation’s capital for over 30 years.
Other than hurricanes, I have pretty much stuck to being a political reporter, and had no idea that I might be dispatched to London when the news broke of Diana’s death on August 31, 1997.
At the time, I wasn’t in D.C. – instead, I was on vacation in Wyoming, visiting my grandmother for what had become my usual late summer trip before Congress returned to session after Labor Day.
The terrible news about Diana captivated my grandmother – who at that point in her life was routinely parked in her big chair in front of the television – and we watched the story for hours that night.
Soon enough, my pager went off (I don’t think I even owned a cell phone at that time), and it was my news director from KFI Radio in Los Angeles, who wanted to see if I was interested in going to London.
But getting from Sheridan, Wyoming to London, England, was not the easiest thing to do. The next day, I left my grandmother’s house at 10 am, drove two hours to Billings, Montana, and flew from there to Washington, D.C., arriving late that night.
The morning after, I headed in to the U.S. Capitol, gathered my radio equipment, quickly packed my clothes, and drove out to Dulles Airport in Virginia, plunking down $630 for a last minute round trip ticket to London.
After 36 hours of travel, by early on Wednesday September 3, I was on the streets of London.
I may not be someone who watches the latest stories about the British Royal family, but this was a story that I will never forget.
And I will certainly never forget the sound of silence of in the streets of London. Twenty years ago.