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.

33 thoughts on “Nutty Putty Cave Accident

  1. May poor John rest in heaven with God. I hope this doesn’t happen to anyone else. Imagine being in a dark,narrow cave upside down. And being in extreme pain and nauseous. And when you’re almost saved you fall even deeper,making you give up.

  2. It’s worse knowing his death was one of depraved indifference manslaughter. The cave area he died in was known to be very dangerous but nothing was done, no warnings on the map, no warnings underground, no sealing up the dangerous passages.

    The cave management plan was a joke. A class of pre-schoolers could have faked their experience and qualifications to gain a permit to access the cave. There was zero effective oversight.

    11 years on and those who were charged with the safety of Nutty Putty cavers are still content to accept no responsibility for the needless death of John and they maintain their blame the victim stance. With management like that it’s probably better if all Utah caves end up permanently sealed off.

    1. I once saw a forum post from a Timpanogos grotto member saying this branch was intentionally left off the map to try to discourage people going through it. That makes no sense as a solution and in my opinion is completely unethical. I agree, from what I have seen many of the members of the group managing this cave had a terribly negative attitude toward public access.

    2. Well, John did make several foolish decisions in an uncharted tunnel in a cave in which he had no experienece. He was in the wrong tunnel but thought he was in the right one, and kept going even when the passage narrowed and dropped suddenly downward. If he had done his research, he would have known that a teen, Brock Clark, got stuck in the very same tunnel in 2004 and almost died there. John went 14 feet further into the same tunnel, a guy with a wife and baby at home and another baby on the way. His reckless decisions simply make no sense whatsoever.

    3. I agree. They also made a mess of the rescue pulling his feet in the wrong direction using a bar just because it was there. The ropes should have gone straight from Johns feet to a pulley placed on the opposite side that the first pulley was placed. This would have pulled him in the right direction, no need for broken legs, & they did break at least one pulling in the wrong direction to the useless stone bar. It wasn’t the pulley that broke at all it was that bar they never needed in the first place that snapped sending him hurtling back down. After that fiasco he never spoke again so it no doubt killed him.
      Expert engineers should have been in on the planning & I’m sure they wouldn’t have chosen to use an off angle bar without knowing it’s ability to hold weight & pulling in the wrong direction.
      https://i.redd.it/mkkuu7goqkz41.jpg

    4. Obviously you know very little about the events leading up to his death..they lied about the size of the group. If they had not lied they would have been given a nutty putty guide and this wouldn’t have happened.. he also went into a passage not known to him, head first..which is basic knowledge of what not to do..the grotto management team did all they could..remember these guys are volunteers..

  3. What was he thinking, trying to squeeze into an area that tight.? He was careless and I feel terrible. I just will never understand his thinking at the time.

    1. Great. You’re another blame the victim i. diot. Have you looked at the maps for Nutty Putty? No I bet as there are no warnings on them about dangerous passages. Anyone could have gotten a permit to enter that cave, experienced or not, and entered those dangerous unmarked passages, so you think blaming them is the answer? If you ever get attacked or assaulted will you be blaming yourself? You really need to think more before you insult John.

      1. The minute you try to squeeze through and area too small for you, you take on those risks. It’s defined tragic, but he assumed the risks the minute he squeezed through that space.

  4. There is actually a 2nd a 3rd entrance to Nutty Putty, it’s just not known to most as the main entrance is…btw…John is still stuck there and all the rescue equipment, but he’s been reduced to a almost skeleton now.

    1. Chris Taber, So you’re saying the cave is still used & John s remains have been observed, what is left of the poor man, in situ? Perhaps his family should be asked if they want them out of that miserable black hole & put to rest somewhere where they can pay respects.

  5. I am no expert and i am not laying the blame at any ones door, i am just asking a question- Would it have been possible to drill down from the surface adjacent to where John was trapped( approx 100ft down) and got him out that way?

    1. Everything happened within hours. The first responders arrived there in 3-4 hours and immediately began the rescue efforts. It would have taken so much more time to locate him from above, to get the necessary machinery and personnel, and to start drilling through the extremely hard rock with enough time and precision to reach him in time and not kill him in the process. It was so much easier and quicker to access him through the available path. I imagine if they had more days or weeks they would have definitely considered that.

      1. Thanks for your reply. I understand what you have said, but John was alive for approx 27 hours. Surely with the technology available it wouldn’t have taken that long to get to him by drilling?

        1. Thank you for the discussion.

          He was stuck in an incredibly small space, facing upside down. In my opinion, even if the rescue crews could have pinpointed his location from above and started drilling, he would’ve faced the risk of the drill causing serious damage to him and/or collapsing the cave around him. It is also uncertain how the drilled hole would’ve had an advantage as they already had access to him from above and would’ve drilled the passageway wider had they had enough time. In practice, cave rescue operations nearly always take place via the already existing cave paths. I’m sure the rescuers brainstormed all the available options and it was just bad circumstances and the failure of the initial pulley system that dropped him further down in the passage and lead him to his death.

          That said, these are my thoughts and you could be right. I don’t have enough expertise or knowledge about the situation to say what could have been done differently, unfortunately.

          1. percussive drilling, the fastest method, runs the risk of shattering and collapsing the rock and passages John was in, killing him. Rotary diamond drilling would have taken longer to set up and reach John than the 26 hours he stayed alive after getting stuck.

            source: my uncle who mined nickel in Ontario all his life.

  6. I think a decision should have been made to pull him out no matter how much he screamed. They should have broke his legs and ripped him out of that hole and fixed him after he was out and alive. I understand he was screaming in pain but I guarantee you he would have rather got out busted and broken rather then dying how he did. I’m not sure what drives people to do shit like this and to try to fit in places that you actually have to exhale all the air in your body to fit into.

    I read another story the other day about a guy who was with a whole bunch of friends in a cave that was like 2 miles down and when he was crawling through 1 of the caves a rock came loose from above him and hit him right on his back and paralyzed him a mile or 2 underground. It was a cave in Canada and everybody left to go get help but 1 person stayed with him. After a long time rescue finally reached him and a doctor examined him and found he broke his spine and was paralyzed. So the only way to move him was put him on a back board and strap him down with like 2 straps so he wouldn’t move even an inch and break his back anymore. I think it took them 10 hours to move him like 100 feet because the backboard kept getting stuck and they had to keep repositioning him. Well after 10 hours they got to a spot where the cave was really narrow and you could barely crawl through and they had this dude on a backboard that couldn’t bend to get around the turns so they used hammers and drills for hours but couldn’t widen the passages enough. So 1 of the rescuers was an explosives expert and decided the only way was dynamite. They had to blast 7 or 8 diff parts of the caves in all diff areas to get this dude out on a backboard. I think it took them like 30 hours and a lot of rescuers but they did it.

    All these people put their lives at risk because somebody wants to go and squeeze through caves for a rush. I think you need to sign a waiver when going into caves like these that if you injure yourself or get lost or disabled in some way that your ultimately on your own and nobody is going to risk their life because of your stupidity and need to crawl into a cave miles below the surface. We’d have less people doing these dumb activities because some would die and other would stop so they don’t die.

    1. How could he crawl out of the cave with his legs broken? Also there was bo way they could drug him. His heart was not pumping blood on his legs. The drugs would not work.

  7. Makes me claustrophobic thinking in how anyone would choose to do this. I got claustrophobic just getting into an MRI machine lol. What if you get a cramp while you’re in one those tight places, you’re screwed..

  8. Why couldn’t a doctor at least come and sedate him so he could’ve died peacefully?

    I am so claustrophobic that they have to sedate me going into an MRI. Just imagining getting stuck like that makes me feel like I can’t breathe but then again, you’ll never, EVER find me in any cave.

    I just wish they could’ve pulled his body out so his family could bury him. May he RIP.

    1. Omg I know right!! I was thinking the same thing. I had a panic attack reading this that’s how bad my anxiety is. One of my fears is claustrophobia and I mean it’s a huge fear! I can’t imagine what was going through this mans mind not to mention they had no choice but to leave him in the cave. So so sad 😞

  9. I’ve seen some beautiful photos of caves, but nothing that would make me squeeze through anywhere like this. What a terrible way to go.

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