Nutty Putty Cave Accident

This article describes the Nutty Putty Cave accident in which a 26-year-old caver named John Jones tragically lost his life in 2009. His death is a sobering reminder of how dangerous caving can be and why we should follow safe caving practices at all times when spelunking.

The cave

Nutty Putty Cave (located in Utah, exact Google Maps location here) was first explored in 1960 and it quickly became famous for its narrow and slippery passageways, twists, turns and squeezes. Different parts of the cave are named accordingly – The Birth Canal, The Aorta Crawl, The Scout Eater, The Maze. Nutty Putty Cave is a hydrothermal cave, with a total surveyed length and depth of 1355 and 145 feet, respectively.

Nutty Putty Cave Map (click for full size). Copyright: Brandon Kowallis

John Jones

John had had plenty of caving experience, but not recently – most of his spelunking was done when he was a kid – John’s father frequently took him and his younger brother Josh on caving trips all over Utah.

Josh wasn’t his only brother: John Edwards Jones was born into a big family of five boys and two girls, he also had 16 nieces and nephews. John was a devout Christian, and according to his family statement later, he was known for his “good nature, delightful sense of humor, strong work ethic, a genuine love of people, a masterful ability to relate to children, a love of and unwavering faith in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and his commitment to his family as an amazing husband, father, son and brother.”

At the time of the accident, John was studying to become a pediatric cardiologist, had recently become a father, and his wife was pregnant with their second child.

John Edwards Jones
Picture of John Jones.

The accident

Entering the cave

On November 24, 2009, the brothers John and Josh decided to rekindle their love for caving and picked Nutty Putty Cave as their next conquest. It was 8 p.m. on Wednesday, just a few days before Thanksgiving when they arrived at the cave site. They weren’t alone: 9 more friends and acquaintances had joined them, so by caving standards, it was quite a large group that finally entered the Nutty Putty Cave.

Everything went smooth for an hour or so. The party had explored the largest room in the cave, aptly named the Big Slide. Soon, John, Josh, and two of their friends decided to take up a challenge they had heard about – namely passing through the Birth Canal, a narrow and challenging passageway that eventually opens up into a larger room. John went first: he wriggled forward for some time but did not see any larger area. He continued to inch forward, but the narrow passage did not come to an end; instead, the squeeze made a sharp downward turn. Confidently, John pressed forward, perhaps noticing the tunnel got wider at the bottom, but it was already too late.

It all went wrong 50 feet earlier. It is unclear from the conflicting sources on the internet whether John entered the Birth Canal and accidentally turned and wriggled into the Scout Eater or if he had missed the Birth Canal entirely and crawled into another passageway, just next to the Birth Canal, called Ed’s Push. Now, Ed’s Push does not lead to a larger room. It does not lead anywhere, at least nowhere a 6-foot 200-pound man can fit. Ed’s Push has four uncharted passageways at its end, but they are all too small for a human (if he instead pushed into the Scout Eater, it similarly has a small passageway that doesn’t lead anywhere). In any case, John kept pushing through until he couldn’t continue. To top things off, he had wriggled into a fissure that went nearly straight down, which made him unable to turn back on his own. The narrow crevice he was trapped in measured 10 by 18 inches. This size is comparable to the opening of a front-loading washing machine, except it wasn’t a perfect circle and he was stuck in the tightest part of the opening. Trapped more than 100 feet below the ground, and deep inside the cave, all John could do was wait and pray.

The long wait

His brother Josh who was following him was the first one to find John. Anxious of how much the rock had swallowed John, Josh tried to pull him out but only managed to inch him up a little. As soon as he let John go, he slid right back into the crevice. John was stuck with one hand pinned underneath him, and the other forced backward. His ankles and feet were free but were of little use as gravity pushed him down. They both said a quick prayer, and Josh hurried back to the ground as fast as he could, slowly wiggling out of the tight passage and rushing to the surface. Once outside, he quickly called for help while their friend stayed with John.

The first person to arrive to help, Susan, was a local rescue volunteer who immediately dropped everything she was doing when she received the message on her rescue pager and rushed to the scene with her Toyota. She arrived sometime around midnight – it was now more than three hours since John had been trapped deep inside the cave. Small, agile, and quick, Susan took no time to reach John.

“Hi, John, my name is Susie. How’s it going?”

“Hi Susie, thanks for coming,” John said, “but I really, really want to get out.”

Within the next few hours, tens and tens of rescuers arrived. The rescue team quickly brainstormed a plan after a plan. They discussed everything – even lubing the walls of the cave – until they decided to use a rescue rope that passes through a series of climbing cams with one end of the rope tied around John’s legs and the other end pulled by the team. At the same time, they also tried drilling away chunks of rock near John, but the hard material and the awkward position made drilling a slow and painful work. In over an hour, they only managed to drill through a couple of inches of rock.

The position of John’s body also complicated things. He was trapped nearly upside down, only his feet were visible to the rescuers, and the ceiling above the feet hanged so low the rescuers couldn’t just pull him out as his feet would get in the way. Time passed as rescuers worked frantically and failed with their first system of climbing cams. They then tried to use a rope-pully system, anchoring the pullies with bolts, drilling the bolts deep in the cave walls.

One of the rescuers working on the pulley system in Nutty Putty cave. Photo credit: UCSSAR.org

Everything was made more difficult by how narrow the cave was. Even though there was a large team of rescuers, volunteers, emergency services, and a rescue helicopter outside, only one person could directly access John.

Meanwhile, John was doing worse – he had now been stuck upside down for a long time, having some difficulty breathing, and his heart had to work twice as hard against gravity to push the continuous blood flow out of his brain. He was swinging back and forth between panic and calmness.

At one point, they brought a two-way cable radio into the cave and managed to lower it to him so he could speak with his wife, who was near the cave entrance on the surface. They were both agitated but comforted each other.

John had now been trapped upside down for 19 hours.

Diagram of John being trapped in Nutty Putty Cave.
Diagram of John being trapped in Nutty Putty Cave.

Things start to look better

Everything changed when the rescuers finally finished installing their pully system and started pulling John out. They worked in an eight-men tandem, all tugging as one. John was at times in great pain, so they made frequent pauses. But each time they pulled, they managed to pull John up a bit more.

After pulling him upwards the third time, John was finally lifted high enough so that he could make eye contact with the rescuer closest to him. He looked tired, his eyes were red, and his face was dirty, but he seemed fine otherwise.

“How are you?”

“It sucks. I’m upside down. I can’t believe I’m upside down. My legs are killing me.”

The rescuer saw that even though John was complaining, he had a smile on his face.

They had another rest then decided to continue pulling John up. He was almost out.

Disaster strikes

When the rescue team pulled John upward for the fourth time, something happened.

The entire team fell backward as the rope suddenly went loose in their hands. The closest rescuer felt something hard hit his face, and he passed out for a second. When he came to, he saw nothing but dust. Once the dust settled a bit, he realized the stone arch near John’s legs where the rope was tied around had shattered, and the nearest key bolt had broken off. He couldn’t make out in the dust where exactly John was, but soon he realized – John had slid right down the crevice again, this time seemingly even deeper than before.

As the rescuer suffered severe facial injuries from the impact with a metal carabineer and couldn’t continue his rescue efforts, he had to switch places with his dad who was also on the rescue team. When he reached John, he realized that John’s breathing was much more shallow and less frequent, and he was struggling to stay alive. The rescuer called for John but received no response. Desperate, he tried to lower himself into the crevice to put the rope around John’s waist but got stuck himself. After finally wriggling himself free, he drilled a new hole for the pulley and crawled out of the cave, exhausted, to be replaced by yet another rescuer who reached John but couldn’t make contact with him.

Soon after, a medical professional crawled into the cave and reached John. At midnight, November 25, John was pronounced dead. He was 26 years old.

A total of 137 rescuers worked hard for 27 hours to save John but had to leave the tragic site with empty hands and heavy hearts. One of them told the media this was his toughest rescue in his 29 years of being a search-and-rescue volunteer.

The next day, the authorities determined that it was too difficult and dangerous to get his body out of the cave, so Nutty Putty Cave will forever remain the final resting place for John Edwards Jones.

A week after, public authorities decided to close Nutty Putty Cave to the public permanently. It has been sealed ever since.

John’s family had a plaque put on the entrance of the cave in his memory.

A plaque in remembrance of John Jones near the entrance to Nutty Putty Cave.
A plaque in remembrance of John Jones near the entrance to Nutty Putty Cave.

148 thoughts on “Nutty Putty Cave Accident

  1. Omg what a sad story. The map itself was scary enough. I guess you have to love the caving experience. May his family and friends keep him to heart.

    1. Reading this is very sad but at least they stayed with him until the very end and he was able to talk to his wife I hope he was not in very much pain it is real horrible knowing that you are going to die and be left inside this dark hole the rest of your life you never would catch me in any place I guess I am scared to death of tight spots even under a house

  2. Thank you those who tried. What comes across in this story is the effort. It sounds like they were so close to rescuing him. How tragic. My brother occasionally does reckless things like this. People don’t realize the hidden dangers of what they are doing sometimes.

  3. This is why we cant have nice things like caves.

    Seriously, though, imagine an adult gets themselves killed doing something dumb so therefore the object that they died on must be removed.

      1. this can even happen to proffessionals, so pls! of course you can be cautious but you can never eliminate 100 % of risks.

      1. What is wrong with you people. Some of the comments being made are so cruel and disrespectful!!! Sad to be reminded there are people in the world who are so evil!!

        1. They’re right. I would never, ever, ever say John “deserved to die”, but then again I would not do something like this if you paid me a million dollars (and I could REALLY use the money!). Crawling head first into an opening the size of my washing machine, deep in the earth? Just BEGS for something horrible to happen.

  4. I got anxious and freaked out just reading this story. I can not imagine what this guy went through. To think that his body is just there forever – alone. What a morbid thought. I can’t imagine people actually purposely explore tight spaces like that without having a complete panic attack. I’ll stay above ground and be just fine, thank you very much.

    1. yesss …. I literally jumped up out of sheer horror, I cant begin to imagine- makes you wonder if people ever stop to think…
      ‘what if?’
      more than anything, my heart goes out to his wife.

      1. That’s my issue with stuff like this. How is your only thought before doing something like this… “Hmm, what is the worst that can happen”, and how is the answer not enough to convince you to NOT??

    2. the cave did him not let go, beyond death! forever stuck..body and soul. Why did the cave win? he tooks his life, aint that enough? he should be rescued, even dead. Cant get over this topic. Watched the video on youtube.

  5. Some of you people commenting are effing putrid and I only can hope you dont get what your vile souls deserve. Class it up.

    1. So wishing that people who make harsh (but not disrespectful) remarks do not “get what their vile souls deserve” is any more dignified than those actual comments?

      It is very educational to see the dynamics of such discussions regardless of the context. A young man tragically died and thereafter and for all eternity, all criticism regarding his decision making, recklessness, lack of respect for a cave’s traps and disregard for the nutty putty’s incident history, is not to be ever brought up again. It surely is an honorable move to advance your condolence to family and friends but it does not make you a monster if you instead just underscore the lessons that can be learned from his light-headed actions. It won’t hurt his pride. He is dead. But it might stick to some kids’ heads when they go out on similar adventures. People of my generation urgently need to call back their self-granted right to drop judgement on everyone and everything they dont agree with. Its your opinion. No need to go personal on people not taking the same route as you do in the comment section. If you are so righteous, its time to show some respect towards opinions other than your own.
      Thanks

      1. I’m adopting ‘Class it up’ as my new fave phrase 😁 *Missy Truth made a valid point (& did state ‘hope you 𝑑𝑜𝑛’𝑡 get..’; no need to react as if they said otherwise. It was also a general comment about trolls, which surely 𝑑𝑜𝑒𝑠 give it far more dignity than troll comments about a named person)- It’s possible to be critical & express opinion without being caustic, free speech never meant the right to belittle others. While comments may not ‘hurt his pride’ they lower our collective dignity, John also has living friends & family including 2 children who may stumble across posts. Why shouldn’t commenters be held to a basic standard of respect? Pre-digital with far less access to anonymously insult strangers, there was far less need to confront it; just newspapers to write into via human censor. With greater freedom of expression comes self-responsibility; it’s not an ‘entitlement’ to carelessly lob words like grenades from hidden behind a keyboard, & feel outraged if we’re called out on it. Derogatory comments actually work 𝑎𝑔𝑎𝑖𝑛𝑠𝑡 education; giving the idea someone is somehow ‘lesser’ dangerously deludes us to think we are safe as we are unlike them – rather than learning from a person pretty much like us, who happened to make fatal mistakes. It matters not which generation we think we speak for, 𝗲𝘃𝗲𝗿𝘆𝗼𝗻𝗲 should have basic decency to each other to think before they post; to remember it’s human beings on the receiving end, not some distant abstract target to throw bile at. Peace out, as I’ve heard people on US TV shows say… ; )

        1. this is one of the only comments i have ever seen on the internet that is both sensible and compassionate, genuinely thank you. also i find it ironic that so many people who “would never do something so stupid” seem to think they know quite a lot about the subject to be so comfortable passing judgment on a man who died tragically

  6. I accept that his legs would hit the roof of the cave when they pulled him out, so they might need to be broken, but I don’t understand it. Maybe someone can explain, please? His legs bent a certain way to get in, why couldn’t they bend that way again to get out? is it because if his legs bent at the knees, the ropes would be pulling his lower legs toward the cave exit, rather than pulling his body up and out? Where did they propose breaking his legs? If there was so little room they had to break his shins, wouldn’t they also have to break his femurs later?

    1. The way I understand it, he rotated 180 degrees when entering this, also while bending his knees. This means his knees would have to bend backwards from where they are to be able to get out. Also, he had to exhale fully to compress his chest enough to go into the hole – when he inhaled, it basically got him stuck this position meaning he couldn’t do a 180 to get back out.

    2. Yes every shin and femur bones in his leg would break and cause further trauma and shock in his already deteriorating state. No good option sadly ..

  7. Absolutely can’t imagine what this poor guy went thru. Sounds like he was a great person too. Probably the last way I wanna die. I’ll be avoiding caves at all cost now

  8. Mostly irrelevant now, but for accuracy’s sake; “The rigging failure actually dropped John aprox 1 foot; it did not injure him but effectively ended hope of rescue as his conditioning was declining; extracting an injured helper, re-rigging the pulley, & re-assembling the team took over an hour, by which time John was now unable to assist his rescuers with any upward progress – 1 rescuer had earlier exited the cave & reported John was nearly free, 1 hour later the rigging had failed; it was subsequently broadcast that John had been free but the rigging failure dropped him all the way back to his original position; this is untrue”

  9. this was an absolutely tragic story. And to those negative comments I can only say, that many people like adventure. No one goes mountain climbing or spelunking thinking they will die but people do die as there is always some risk involved. I can think of a lot of activities that carry a risk , racing car drivers, scuba diving etc. I’m sure many are married with kids. Don’t be judgmental just because you wouldn’t do it. You couldn’t drag me into a cave like that, I’m so claustrophobic.

  10. This makes me feel when I read this tragic story as if I were in there too right next to him and the overwhelming impending doom sets in and it is tremendously frightening.

  11. What he endured was unspeakably awful. But they were making progress getting him out. I like to think that when he lost consciousness, he had hope. In some accounts, he lost consciousness when the rigging failed and he fell back downward. That would be some comfort if his last thought was that he was going to make it out.

  12. Why does he have to be labeled as selfish? His father taught him how to explore caves. I think skiing is dangerous and water skiing too. People die doing those activities. Are they selfish too?
    More people die in car accidents than extreme sports every day. Are car owners and drivers selfish? They must be. The ones who get in accidents ruin it for the ones who don’t because we pay more in insurance.
    You risk your life just by walking outside. Life isn’t promised to anyone. That’s why we purchase life insurance.
    Some of you need live! Get off the internet and go have an adventure. Explore some caves!

    1. I would definitely say that entering an upside down hole the size of a washing machine hatch when you’re 6 feet tall (or any size over a cat) is incredibly more dangerous than any car ride, and basically asking for death.

      We can criticize the dead. I feel terrible for him and his family, if I had been in the rescue team I would have absolutely helped all that I could, but this is one of those cases that if they had saved him all in one piece, he would have deserved a good few slaps to the face for being such a moron.

      I want to do paragliding and swim with wild killer whales, but you can be sure that if I had young children, I definitely wouldn’t be doing at least the latter. If you have family, your life does not only belong to you.

  13. I am so heartbroken. So, so sad. What would have happened if they have had broken his legs?So they have could pull him out. The crave did not want him to go, never ever. Why did this thing broke and he slipped deeper? why he exhaled to go deeper, he thought there would be more space? what if not?it is so devestating. In the film 27 hours the guy had a chance to survive, bu this man? no action possible, no back just more diving into his death. Even after death no way to escape, why not? they have to rescue his dead body and soul. Why does they allow the grave swallow him further and further. Even his bones. Pls take him out for Gods sake. There must be a possibility without harming others. Dont leave him there thats not ok. No freedom at all?
    ,

  14. mankind dont belong in cave, in water or in air. The earth and soil is his place. He is neither a fish, nor a bat, nor a bird.

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