LONDON -- It started out as a joke, but ended in tragedy.
The sudden death of a nurse who unwittingly accepted a prank call to a London hospital about Prince William's pregnant wife Kate has shocked Britain and Australia, and sparked an angry backlash Saturday from some who argue the DJs who carried out the hoax should be held responsible.
At first, the call by two irreverent Australian DJs posing as royals was picked up by news outlets around the world as an amusing anecdote about the royal pregnancy. Some complained about the invasion of privacy, the hospital was embarrassed, and the radio presenters sheepishly apologized.
But the prank took a dark twist Friday with the death of nurse Jacintha Saldanha, a 46-year-old mother of two, three days after she took the hoax call. Police have not yet determined Saldanha's cause of death, but people from London to Sydney have been making the assumption that she died because of stress from the call.
King Edward VII's Hospital, where the former Kate Middleton was being treated for acute morning sickness last week, wrote a strongly-worded letter to the 2DayFM radio station's parent company Southern Cross Austereo, condemning the "truly appalling" hoax and urging it to take steps to ensure such an incident would never happen again.
"The immediate consequence of these premeditated and ill-considered actions was the humiliation of two dedicated and caring nurses who were simply doing their job tending to their patients," the letter read. "The longer term consequence has been reported around the world and is, frankly, tragic beyond words."
The hospital did not comment when asked whether it believed the prank call had directly caused Saldanha's death, only saying that the protest letter spoke for itself.
DJs Mel Grieg and Michael Christian, who apologized for the prank Tuesday, took down their Twitter accounts after they were bombarded by thousands of abusive comments. Rhys Holleran, CEO of Southern Cross Austereo, said the pair have been offered counseling and were taken off the air indefinitely.
No one could have foreseen the tragic consequences of the prank, he stressed.
"I spoke to both presenters early this morning and it's fair to say they're completely shattered," Holleran told reporters Saturday.
"These people aren't machines, they're human beings," he said. "We're all affected by this."
Details about Saldanha have been trickling out since the duty nurse's body was found at apartments provided by the private hospital, which has treated a line of royals before, including Prince Philip, who was hospitalized there for a bladder infection in June.
In the aftermath of Saldanha's death, some speculated about whether the nurse was subject to pressure to resign or about to be punished for the mistake. Royal officials said Prince William and Kate were "deeply saddened," but insisted that the palace had not complained about the hoax. King Edward VII's Hospital also maintained that it did not reprimand Saldanha.
"We did not discipline the nurse in question. There were no plans to discipline her," a hospital spokesman said. He declined to provide further details.