John Edward Jones had a lot of fun spelunking with this family. When he and his brother, Josh, were youngsters, their father took them on caving adventures in Utah. The lads grew to appreciate the deep depths’ somber beauty.
Unfortunately, John’s first journey into Nutty Putty Cave, roughly 55 miles southwest of Salt Lake City, was his last.
On the evening of November 24, 2009, a few days before Thanksgiving, John Edward Jones entered Nutty Putty Cave at 8 p.m. local time. John, 26, and Josh, 23, decided to explore Nutty Putty Cave with nine other friends and family members as a chance to reconnect before the holiday.
John was at his peak at the age of 26. He was married with a one-year-old daughter and studying medicine in Virginia. He had returned home to Utah to celebrate the holidays with his family. Things did not go as planned. John hadn’t been in a cave for years. And he wasn’t the tiny youngster he used to be, standing six feet tall and weighing 200 pounds.
After about an hour of caving, John chose to visit the Nutty Putty Cave feature known as the Birth Canal, a narrow hole that spelunkers must cautiously crawl through if they dare. He reached what he assumed was the Birth Canal and crept into the tight channel head first, using his hips, stomach, and fingers to propel himself forward. But he quickly realized he’d made a colossal mistake.
John realized he was nearly stuck and had little room to turn around. He couldn’t even wiggle back out the way he’d come. He had no choice but to strive to go forward.
He tried to expel the air in his lungs to squeeze through a gap just 10 inches across and 18 inches high, roughly the size of a clothes dryer opening. But when John inhaled again, and his chest inflated again, he became permanently trapped.
Stuck in a Tight Spot
The first person to locate John Edward Jones was his brother. Josh tried unsuccessfully to tug on his brother’s calves. But then John slipped further into the passage, becoming even more confined. His arms were now crushed behind his torso, and he could not move.
At this time, all John and Josh, both devoted Mormons, could do was pray. Josh prayed, “Guide us as we work through this.” “Save me for my wife and children,” John explained.
Josh eventually made his way to the cave’s outlet in search of assistance. Even when help arrived, John was imprisoned 400 feet inside the cave and 100 feet below the Earth’s surface. It took a long time to get personnel, equipment and supplies down that far.
Susie Motola, the first rescuer to reach John, came at 12:30 a.m. on November 25. John had been imprisoned for three and a half hours at that time. Motola introduced herself to John, even though all she saw of him was a pair of blue and black running shoes.
“Hi Susie, thanks for coming,” John introduced himself, “but I need to go out.”
Over the following 24 hours, more than a hundred rescue workers labored tirelessly to extract John Edward Jones from the depths of Nutty Putty Cave. The best strategy they had was to try to remove John from his critically confined situation using a system of pulleys and ropes.
One of the rescuers on the site, Shaun Roundy, detailed the challenges that anyone, even expert spelunkers, would face if they ventured inside Nutty Putty Cave. Most corridors were dangerously tiny, even at the entryway, where they had put warning signs.
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Nutty Putty Cave: A Dangerous Cave
Two Boy Scouts nearly died in separate events in the location of Nutty Putty Cave, where John became trapped in 2004. Within a week of each other, the two Boy Scouts became stuck. In one of the incidents, rescuers used a sophisticated network of pulleys to liberate a 16-year-old Scout who weighed 140 pounds and was 5’7″ tall, making him significantly smaller than John.
Soon after the occurrences with the Boy Scouts, officials shuttered Nutty Putty Cave. When John and his family arrived, the cave had just been reopened for six months.
Time was running out with John Edward Jones imprisoned within the cave. The downward angle at which John was locked was exerting a lot of strain on his body since it demands the heart to work extremely hard to continually pump blood out of the brain (clearly, when the body is right side up, gravity performs the job and the heart doesn’t have to bear that burden).
Rescuers tethered John to a rope attached to a set of pulleys. Everything was in place, and they pulled as hard as they could. However, one of the pulleys abruptly and unexpectedly failed. Roundy believes the pulley broke free at its anchor point in the cave wall, which is covered in loose clay.
The rope-and-pulley operation had ended, the rescuers had run out of options, and John was stranded. Even years after the occurrence, Roundy replays the rescue in his thoughts. “I went through the entire mission, wishing we’d done this minor element differently or sooner. But second-guessing is pointless. We gave it our all.”
A Tragic Death in Nutty Putty Cave
With little possibility of rescue and his heart having been strained for hours owing to his downward posture, John died of cardiac arrest soon before midnight on November 25, 2009. Rescuers had tried for 27 hours to save John. Despite the terrible news, his family praised the rescuers for their assistance.
On the night of John’s death, Nutty Putty Cave lived true to its name. Dale Green discovered it in 1960 and dubbed it Nutty Putty because of the clay in most of the underground structure’s small passages. At its height, the cave attracted up to 25,000 visitors each year.
However, no one will ever enter the cave again. A week after John’s death, officials permanently closed Nutty Putty Cave. They never collected his body, which is still inside to this day, because of fear of further deaths from such an operation.
In 2016, filmmaker Isaac Halasima developed and filmed a feature-length film on John Jones’ life and unsuccessful rescue. The Last Descent depicts John’s suffering and what it’s like to be imprisoned in the tightest cave corridors when claustrophobia and hopelessness set in.
Halasima, a Utah native, has only visited Nutty Putty Cave once. He never got past the front door. “I’d gone in front and kind of said, ‘That’s it, that’s enough.'” Nutty Putty Cave is now a natural memorial and cemetery for John Edward Jones.
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