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The Heartbreakingly Lonesome Death of John Edward Jones

How Utah’s Nutty Putty Cave turned into one man’s permanent resting place.  

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  • Photo Credit: Photo Credit: YouTube

In 2009, just a few days before Thanksgiving, 26-year-old John Edward Jones entered Utah’s Nutty Putty Cave. He never came back out.

The cave, which was named for the loose clay filling many of its narrow passages, already had a notorious reputation. Discovered in 1960, the cave became popular with Scout troops and amateur spelunkers. It has been estimated that as many as 25,000 people visited the cave each year, in spite of the fact that a crawl of some 20 feet was required to get very deep into the caverns at all.

However, by 2009, there had already been four separate rescues in the many tight and twisting chambers that made up Nutty Putty Cave.

Two of these rescues took place in 2004, when two different Boy Scouts became trapped in narrow passages within the cave, about a week apart. One of the rescues took 14 hours and required a complex series of pulleys to free a trapped 16-year-old. Two years later, attempts were made to study the cave to see how safety precautions could be implemented to help prevent further rescues or other injuries.

On May 24, 2006, the cave was shut down so that a proper management program could be established and some safety precautions could be installed. The cave remained closed until 2009. When it reopened to the public, an application process had been put in place to ensure that prospective spelunkers followed proper safety precautions before going underground. The cave reopened on May 18, 2009. Within six months, it would be the site of its worst—and final—accident. 

John Edward Jones’ wife and family did not know this would be his last adventure

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  • John Edward Jones and his wife. 

    Photo Credit: Photo Credit: YouTube

Though he and his family had often gone caving when he was younger, John Edward Jones was not an experienced spelunker. It had been years since he was in a cave.

In spite of that, he entered Nutty Putty Cave around 8:00 p.m. on the evening of November 24, 2009 with several other friends and family members.

Jones, who had a wife and infant daughter—with another child on the way—was attending medical school in Virginia and had returned to Utah to spend the holidays with his family. Unfortunately, he would never see Thanksgiving.

After less than an hour underground, Jones went looking for “an adventure” and decided to try to find one of the cave’s named formations, a narrow passage known as the “Birth Canal.” This notorious passage required cavers to crawl a considerable distance through a narrow space barely large enough to accommodate them.

Unfortunately for Jones, he never found it. When he entered what he thought was the “Birth Canal,” he had to inch forward headfirst using only his fingers, hips, and stomach to creep deeper into the passage. By the time he realized that he had made a mistake, it was too late.

Jones becomes stuck in the cave 

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  • The location where Jones became stuck.

    Photo Credit: Photo Credit: YouTube

Jones’ younger brother was the first person to find him. When he arrived, Jones was already been stuck firmly into the narrow passage, and an attempt to pull him out by the calves only wound up wedging him in intractably than before. What was worse, he was trapped at a downward angle, so that his heart had to work incredibly hard to pump blood away from his brain. The position was not going to be tenable for long.

Even as his family rushed to get help, John Edward Jones was still stuck some 400 feet into Nutty Putty Cave, and more than 100 feet underground. It took time for the rescuers to arrive, and the first person on the scene didn’t get there until around 12:30am. By then, Jones had already been trapped for more than three hours.

Rescue workers attempt to free Jones 

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  • Paramedics attempt to free Jones. 

    Photo Credit: Photo Credit: YouTube

“Hi Susie, thanks for coming,” Jones said to Susie Motola, the first rescue worker to reach him after she had introduced herself to his feet, which were all that she could see, “but I really, really want to get out.” Then, the rescue began, using a complex system of pulleys similar to the ones that had been employed in previous rescues at Nutty Putty Cave.

Over the course of the next 24 hours, more than 100 personnel worked to try to free John Edward Jones from the depths. Unfortunately, the operation was much more complex than simply yanking Jones out of the narrow fissure, and in the midst of the process, something went catastrophically wrong.

By 5:00 p.m., the rescue that had begun at 12:30 that morning had managed to move Jones some 10 feet. It was enough that food and water could be passed to him. However, about that time, one of the anchors holding the various ropes and pulleys in place tore loose from the rock, and Jones plunged back into his original position. Though unharmed by the fall, Jones had become wedged even more tightly. By then, he had been trapped for more than twenty hours.

After over 24 hours of work—when Jones had been trapped beneath the earth for more than a full day—his heart finally gave out from the strain, and Jones was pronounced dead of cardiac arrest. However, even when Jones had died, the effort to extract him from Nutty Putty Cave wasn’t over. “He’s still in the same tight position he was in,” rescuers said of Jones’ body. 

Is John Edward Jones’ body still in the cave?

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  • Jones' plaque in his remembrance. 

    Photo Credit: Photo Credit: YouTube

“The cave that claimed the life of John Jones will also be his tomb,” The Salt Lake Tribune wrote on November 28, after rescuers and Jones’ family had agreed that his body would be left to lie where it was. “It will be, as they describe it, a sacred place for them and for a lot of other people,” said Utah County Sheriff’s Sergeant Spencer Cannon.

The decision to leave Jones’ remains in Nutty Putty Cave came about partly because the effort to extract his body would provide too great a risk to rescue personnel.

“He is in an area that is really beyond the scope of what anyone can get into, where the cave peters down to nothing,” said state senator John Valentine.

Even if the crews were able to extract Jones’ body from the crevice in which it was stuck, he would still have to be extracted through the many difficult passages he had already traversed in order to reach that position.

Instead, the decision was made to seal the cave forever, with the body of John Edward Jones still inside. Explosives were used to collapse the passages near Jones’ body, while the entrance to the cave was sealed with a concrete plug, and a memorial plaque was placed near the cave’s entrance.

Members of the spelunking community—including Dale Green, the man who first discovered and named the cave—opposed the closure, but Utah County Sheriff Jim Tracy said that the decision “serves all parties the best.”

Today, Nutty Putty Cave remains closed and sealed, a permanent monument to the lonesome death of John Edward Jones.