A version of this story appeared in the May 18 edition of CNN’s Royal News, a weekly dispatch bringing you the inside track on Britain’s royal family. Sign up here.
There’s no denying the echoes to the late Princess Diana’s 1997 death in a car crash in Paris. More than 25 years on, her son and his wife were pursued through the streets of New York City this week in what their team called a “near catastrophic” car chase.
That language makes it hard not to evoke the tragic memory of circumstances that led to the loss of one of the most beloved members of the British royal family.
The Duke and Duchess of Sussex were in New York to attend Ms. Foundation’s Women of Vision Awards, where Meghan was being honored for her global advocacy to empower women and girls. As their first public appearance since Prince Harry returned from King Charles’ coronation in London, it had initially seemed a pretty routine affair.
The couple posed on the red carpet before heading inside, where Meghan later claimed her accolade. It was only after the event that the situation escalated, with the details differing depending on who you talked to.
The couple’s spokesperson described “a ring of highly aggressive paparazzi” trailing them for more than two hours, which sparked global rolling coverage. The spokesperson claimed that there were several close calls with other drivers, pedestrians and police officers.
Later, police confirmed the outlines of the account but offered less colorful language, describing the situation merely as “challenging.” Questions continued to swirl Thursday over exactly what happened and for precisely how long, in a city notorious for its traffic congestion. CNN has not independently verified every detail of the couple’s account, but in the light of a new day, a clearer picture is emerging.
Here’s what we know: The couple was seen leaving the awards ceremony in a black car but spotted later in a yellow cab. Chris Sanchez, who was part of the royal security detail, told us they were immediately followed from the event by a dozen vehicles. He said he’d “never seen [or] experienced anything like this” and that “the public were in jeopardy at several points.” He also explained that the couple had switched cars “more than once” during the incident.
Thomas Buda, who runs a private security business contracted to help the couple, corroborated Sanchez’s account of reckless driving from the vehicles that tailed them and the Sussexes’ car swap. He said the couple’s convoy took a circuitous route from 23rd street to 96th street – up and down busy Manhattan arteries – before security brought the couple to the 19th police precinct on East 67th street. From there, the couple were moved to a yellow cab but it ended up circling the block and returning them to the police station.
Cab driver Sukhcharn Singh told CNN that he didn’t feel under threat by the encounter with photographers but Harry and Meghan looked “nervous and scared.”
The couple were ultimately able to make a clean break during the midnight changeover of patrol officers, which effectively caused a traffic choke point on the block, allowing security teams to spirit Harry and Meghan away, according to Buda.
To answer the question of why this elaborate game of cat and mouse unfolded, we were told by Harry’s team that the couple were staying at a private residence and did not want to compromise the security of their friend’s home by returning directly from the awards. Meanwhile, a law enforcement source also said the pair did not stay at a hotel but rather at a private residence on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and chose to keep the location secret so they could come and go.
Statements from the NYPD, the city’s mayor and the law enforcement source also back up that the couple were followed, though those perceptions of the events are less emotionally-charged.
The NYPD put out a more benign statement, saying it had “assisted the private security team” wherein “there were numerous photographers that made their transport challenging.” New York City Mayor Eric Adams cast doubt on the two-hour time frame but added that, irrespective of length, the incident was “reckless” and “irresponsible.”
“It’s clear that the paparazzi want to get the right shot, they want to get the right story, but public safety must always be at the forefront,” Adams said.
In a statement obtained by CNN on Thursday, photo agency Backgrid USA said they were taking the Sussexes’ allegations “seriously” and will conduct an investigation. However, they also pushed back, saying that photographers at the scene had reported “feeling that the couple was not in immediate danger at any point.”
The agency stressed their commitment to transparent journalism, including the need to provide “fair and factual responses to claims.”
“We want to clarify that we have received photos and videos of last night’s events from four freelance photographers, three of whom were in cars and one of whom was riding a bicycle. It is important to note that these photographers have a professional responsibility to cover newsworthy events and personalities, including public figures such as Prince Harry and Meghan Markle,” the statement outlined.
“According to the accounts given by these freelance contributors, they were covering the couple’s stay in New York City, including the possibility of a dinner after an award ceremony. They had no intention of causing any distress or harm, as their only tool was their cameras. A few of the photos even show Meghan Markle smiling inside a cab,” the statement continued.
The Backgrid statement also counterclaimed that one of the four SUVs in the royal convoy “was driving in a manner that could be perceived as reckless” and rejected the allegation that the incident could have resulted in a fatal disaster.
From all of this, it’s clear something took place on Tuesday night – even if perceptions of it differ.
To be fair to the Sussexes, they never claimed a “high-speed” chase took place. Conversations with a member of their entourage have also made it clear that they felt that they had stuck to speed limits, that the couple never felt under threat but that the lives of others had been.
CNN has made a decision, like many other media outlets, not to publish any photographs taken once the couple left the engagement at the Ziegfeld Ballroom. However, those images appear to show Prince Harry documenting the moment on his phone, so we may yet learn more about what exactly happened from their perspective in the future.
Playing into all of this, it’s well known that Harry blames the tabloid press for the premature death of his mother. He has previously shared how every camera flash takes him “straight back” to one of the worst moments of his life. He has been very vocal in his commitment to ensure history does not repeat itself with his wife and has had no qualms about holding the media to account through legal action over what he sees as particularly invasive methods.
Much of that will likely have been running through his mind during this late-night episode. Even the most ardent critics could understand the kind of traumatic resonance that may have surfaced for Harry in this situation.
One other notable element is the silence from his family. Both Buckingham Palace, home of the King, and Kensington Palace, where the Prince of Wales is based, declined to comment on the story. We know that the Sussexes did not hear from the royal family after the story broke – as some may expect in normal family circumstances. But, given the rift between the two sides, it’s likely there has been a broader decision that the household simply can’t respond or engage with the headlines surrounding Prince Harry and Meghan every time they have a tangle with the press.