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Five weeks to the day after the August 1997 car crash that killed Princess Diana and her boyfriend Dodi Fayed, Dodi's bodyguard Trevor Rees-Jones forced himself out of bed. The crash's sole survivor was a mess—face raw from three extensive surgeries, body gaunt, vision blurry. But Rees-Jones was determined to get to his local church in Whittington, England, where friends and fellow congregants had recorded prayers for him, then sent the tape to his Paris hospital room. Now back home in England, he wanted to show his appreciation, and not only to them. "If there is someone up there," he says, "I wanted to say thank you."

As Rees-Jones prepared to embark for New York City to promote the March 15 publication of his account of the events leading up to the crash, The Bodyguard's Story: Diana, the Crash, and the Sole Survivor, the fit-looking former paratrooper spoke of the anguish he suffered in the wake of the tragedy. "A couple of times I felt if I had died instead of them it would have been much easier both for me personally and for everybody else," says Rees-Jones, 32.

One of his lowest moments came on the 12th day of his five-week hospital stay, when his mother, Jill, 56, and stepfather, Ernie Rees-Jones, 57, told him that Diana, Dodi and driver Henri Paul had not survived the crash. "No words can describe the emotion I felt," he says. He wanted to cry, scream, lash out, but "my jaw was wired up, I had a stiff neck brace, I had a trache tube in." Says his mother: "He couldn't release it. It was awful to watch."

Rees-Jones says he never intended to discuss his feelings about the accident publicly. But after Dodi's father, Egyptian mogul Mohamed Al Fayed, blamed him in 1998 for the crash, Rees-Jones decided to write his own account in hopes "it stops all the wild theories." He and his British publisher, Little, Brown (which, like PEOPLE, is owned by Time Warner), made two key decisions at the outset: They would keep the project top secret for fear of interference from Al Fayed. (Indeed, on March 6 the billionaire—who is at work on his own book—unsuccessfully tried to halt publication of The Bodyguard's Story and accompanying British newspaper excerpts.) And Rees-Jones would tell his story in the third person in order to draw on the testimony of others and to reconstruct the 10 days after the crash when he was mostly unconscious.

During that time, for instance, Prince Charles came to Paris to collect Diana's body and asked to speak to Rees-Jones's mother, who was at the hospital. But, says Jill, "the nurse came down to tell us Trevor was waking up, so we rushed off." Instead she sent the Prince a condolence letter, and both she and Rees-Jones's then-wife, Sue, 31, received notes in return. Rees-Jones, who has had no contact with the Windsors since the accident, writes in the book's introduction that he hopes his account provides "a sense of closure" for Diana's sons. "I wouldn't want to put them through any more grief," says Rees-Jones, who got to know them in July 1997 when they visited Al Fayed's Saint-Tropez estate with their mother and their own bodyguards. (Diana permitted royal guards to accompany her only for official engagements or when the boys were in tow.) "They are cracking lads, really good lads."

As for Rees-Jones, interviews with him and his friends and family suggest a regular bloke who has been changed only slightly by extraordinary circumstances. Since the accident he talks to his mother and two brothers (Gareth, 33, a dentist, and John, 29, a sports-science teacher) more often. He is "more guarded with people," says fellow Al Fayed bodyguard and pal Alexander "Kez" Wingfield, but otherwise the same chap—"very loyal, a good laugh." Even the physical changes aren't extreme: scarring and numbness that persists across his top lip and along his left cheek. "I am always wiping my mouth to make sure I haven't got anything stuck on my lip," Rees-Jones says.

The beefy bodyguard's robust health is little short of miraculous. He suffered brain and wrist injuries in the crash, and his face was so damaged that his mother, a now-retired nurse, was able to identify him only by the rugby scars on his legs. "It was like he had been hit with a frying pan," Jill recalls. Says Dr. Luc Chikhani, the prominent French surgeon who tended to him: "We'd never seen a case like this. All the bones were smashed. His profile was completely flat."

Doctors kept Rees-Jones sedated for 10 days, fearful that any abrupt movement would disrupt his recovery. On the fifth day, Chikhani spent 11½ hours rebuilding his patient's shattered face, inserting more than 30 titanium plates and screws to help the bones knit. Two weeks later, Rees-Jones awoke to find himself unable to breathe because of blockage in his tracheotomy tube. "If there was an on-off switch at the side, I would have clicked it off," he says. "I was not suicidal, but I just felt drained."

Gradually, Rees-Jones improved. "Using a bedpan for the first time, not having a catheter—these were the small steps," he says. On day 16 he walked; on day 34 he left the hospital and soon moved into his mother and stepfather's home in Oswestry, England. There he faced more hurdles. "It wasn't easy feeding someone who couldn't open their mouth and couldn't chew," Jill says. Following doctors' orders, she "would place wooden spatulas in his mouth and increase them daily to increase the width he could open his mouth."

Eight weeks after his homecoming, Rees-Jones moved into a place of his own. "The first day I was taken aback thinking I wasn't well enough to look after myself," he says. "But the next day I was kicking myself up the backside for being so pathetic."

In the first weeks of his recovery, Rees-Jones hoped that he and his wife, Sue, a shopkeeper from whom he'd separated before the crash, would get back together. "It was not to be," he says simply. (They divorced in September 1998.) Instead he took comfort in the company of his "mates," who plied him with such delicate encouragements as "My granny can walk faster than you," and "you slobbering idiot." They struck just the right note with Rees-Jones: "I hate sympathy and pity," he says.

For the sake of the book, he must do interviews, but he doesn't enjoy them. "It's not me," he says. Indeed, Rees-Jones's life now is the picture of ordinariness: He has bought a two-bedroom home near his mother and stepfather, trains at his rugby club two nights a week, hangs out at the local pub and relaxes with his girlfriend of three months ("I am very happy with her"). And he is excited about his new job with a local security firm.

To gain a sense of closure, Rees-Jones has visited Dodi's grave in Surrey and hopes to pay a private visit to Diana's at Althorp. (Last week, a spokeswoman for Diana's brother Charles Spencer said, "The Earl would be sympathetic to such a request.") Rees-Jones also hopes to see William and Harry again. "It would be nice," Rees-Jones says, "to be able to say to them that Kez and I did as much as anyone could do on that evening, it was a tragic accident—and I am very sorry."

Jill Smolowe
Simon Perry in London and Peter Mikelbank in Paris

  • Contributors:
  • Simon Perry,
  • Peter Mikelbank.