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Killer joke: Indian-origin nurse in Kate hoax call dies

An Indian-origin nurse in London's famed King Edward VII Hospital who was duped into transferring a hoax call that gave away information on pregnant Kate Middleton's medical condition to Australian radio presenters was found dead on Friday in a case of suspected suicide.

The body of Jacintha Saldanha, 46, was found on Friday morning at an address yards away from King Edward VII Hospital. The cause of death remained unclear, but the British  indicated that Saldanha appeared to have killed herself. Her family, husband and two children have been informed. Scotland Yard said the death was not being treated as suspicious.

The hoax call was made by two presenters - Mel Grieg and Michael Christian - on the Australian radio channel 2DayFM. Grieg pretended to be the Queen, and Christian played the part of Prince Charles and at one point even simulated the barking of the Queen's corgi dogs.

Jacintha, who was helping out on reception at the time of the prank, answered the hoax call at 5.30 am on Wednesday morning.

An ambulance and police officers outside the block of flats in London where nurse Jacintha Saldanha lived. Saldanha, who was of Indian origin, was found dead two days after she was duped into transferring a hoax call to Kate Middleton's room at the hospital where she worked. Reuters

After dialling the hospital, Greig asks if she could please speak to Kate, "my grand-daughter".

Jacintha responds calmly  and requests the caller  - in an easily distinguishable Indian accent - to hold on while she transfers the call.

Greig then gets through to Kate's hospital room, where a second nurse answers the call.

The early part of the conversation goes thus:

Greig, pretending to be the Queen: "Kate my darling, are you there?"

Nurse: "Good morning ma'am, this is a nurse speaking. How may I help you?"

Greig: "Hello, I'm just after my granddaughter Kate, I wanted to see how her little tummy bug is going."

The unsuspecting nurse says that Kate is asleep, and goes on to give intimate details of Kate's medical condition, including the fact that she had been dehydrated and was recovering.

At one point, Christian, pretending to be Prince Charles, too comes on the line and asks when it might be a good time to come by the hospital. The nurse says that perhaps after 9 may be a good time.

When the nurse reveals that Kate was having difficulty sleeping in a strange hospital bed, Christian jokes: "Yes, of course. It's hardly the palace, is it!" Cackling and hooting, Greig and Christian then disconnected the call and gloated over their prank and their fake British accents. (Full transcripts of the conversation here.)

It may have been just a joke, but it was clearly a joke that went too far.

Even before the tragedy involving Saldanha became known, there had been an outpouring of outrage that the radio hosts had resorted to this sort of a prank, and that the channel continued to promote its prank call on air. The station called it "the prank call the world is talking about" before playing clips of news programmes reporting on the original call.

After the tragic news of Saldanha surfaced, there were growing calls for the presenters to be dismissed. Hundreds of angry comments were posted on 2Day FM's Facebook page (here); an online petition (here) asking for Greig and Christian to be sacked for "gross misconduct" has secured the support of more than 3,600 signatories (as of 5.30 am IST on Saturday).

Late on Friday, the station issued a statement (here) saying it was "deeply saddened" by the news of the death of Saldanha and extended its "deepest sympathies" to her family and others who had been affected "by this situation".

Chief executive officer Rhys Holleran said he had spoken to the presenters, who were both "deeply shocked", and that the station and the hosts had decided that  the two presenters would not return to their radio show until further notice "out of respect for what can only be described as a tragedy."

Greig and Christian also deleted their accounts on Twitter, where they had received stinging criticism for their "royal prank", which they had been promoting. Christian's last few tweets had promoted their hoax call under the hashtag #royalprank. Greig too retweeted messages with the same hashtag to her 9,000 followers hours before her account was shut down.

In a statement, St James's Palace said: "The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge are deeply saddened to learn of the death of Jacintha Saldanha. Their Royal Highnesses were looked after so wonderfully well at all times by everybody at King Edward VII Hospital, and their thoughts and prayers are with Jacintha Saldanha's family, friends and colleagues at this very sad time."

The hospital said in a separate statement: "We can confirm the tragic death of a member of our nursing staff, Jacintha Saldanha. Jacintha has worked at the King Edward VII's Hospital for more than four years. She was an excellent nurse and a well-respected and popular member of staff with all her colleagues."

"We can confirm that Jacintha was recently the victim of a hoax call to the hospital. The hospital has been supporting her at this difficult time."

Hospital chief executive John Lofthouse said: "Our thoughts and deepest sympathies at this time are with her family and friends. Everyone is shocked by the loss of a much-loved and valued colleague."

A St James's Palace spokesman said: "At no point did the Palace complain to the hospital about the incident. On the contrary, we offered our full and heartfelt support to the nurses involved and hospital staff at all times."

With inputs from agencies