When news broke that Princess Diana died in a car accident in 1997, fans immediately mourned the late princess. But for broadcaster Brian Williams, he had to report the facts of what was happening and didn't realize what was about to unfold when he spoke about the tragic events on television.
"Because she was unique, this was unique," he told PEOPLE. "I've covered wars and plane crashes and presidential elections and assassinations — this doesn't nicely fit into any of those categories."
William was visiting a friend in Connecticut when he got the call that the princess was in trouble.
"We still had pagers in those days, and I carried one. The first page said '911' and the second was the number to our assignment desk. I called, and they made it clear to me that I should get in the car and go," he recalled. "MSNBC was headquartered in Secaucus, New Jersey, so I had three states to drive through and listen to radio coverage while en route."
At first, Williams only knew that Diana had been in a car accident — but had no idea what was going to come next.
"By the time I arrived at the office, rumors were flying," he said. "Without social media, some of these were being passed along by wire services and some of them by broadcast outlets. I sat down in the chair, and the coverage just started. It's something in my line of work we're used to — you work without a script and without a net. You have autobiographical notes in front of you. You mostly have to rely on your instincts and memory and knowledge of the subject."
It was reported that Diana had passed away, but the TV star wasn't "ready" to make that call just yet.
"Our standards executives had not put it through the filters that we deemed necessary and were not comfortable going through with the story," he said. "There's no walking back once you've announced that Diana has died."
Williams finally told the public the terrible news, admitting that he "had no idea what I was going to say."
"No idea how emotional it was going to be in the moment. This is 36-year-old woman, the mother of the future king," he said. "It is indeed hard after a quarter century to express how big and mythical a figure she was. On nights like that, you can almost feel people tuning in."