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The Nutty Putty Cave Tragedy

In a remote stretch of Utah’s wilderness, hidden beneath the Earth’s surface, lies the infamous Nutty Putty Cave.

The cave, first discovered in the 1960s, would welcome tens of thousands of spelunkers – also known as cavers  – over the years, who would make their way through its narrow passages and tight crawl spaces.

The entrance to Nutty Putty Cave.

One of the adventure seekers who made his way to Nutty Putty to experience the challenge and thrill of exploration was 26-year-old John Edward Jones. 

The man had been on many cave expeditions in his youth, with his father taking him and his brother through various caves in their native Utah.

To most, John certainly wasn’t considered an amateur when it came to navigating his way through the underground.

However, when John entered the Nutty Putty in November 2009, the thrill and excitement would soon turn into fear and dread. The events that took place on this day were not only tragic but also terrifying.

So much so that the cave was subsequently closed indefinitely after the events that took place within. The public is no longer able to visit the site.

The “Nutty Putty Incident” has since been described as being one of the worst deaths a human has endured.

The Dangerous Allure Of Nutty Putty

The Nutty Putty Cave got its unique name from the areas of soft clay inside that could be likened to the look and feel of putty. The entrance is just 30 inches wide, with some of the tight twists and turns within being much narrower. 

Still, the cave was a popular choice among amateur cavers, with thousands of spelunkers exploring it each year.

Despite its popularity with beginners, the cave wasn’t easy on its explorers. Nutty Putty was home to many tight spaces in which many cavers got stuck over the years. 

Between 1999 and 2004, a number of rescue missions took place in the cave, with one man getting stuck in an unforgivingly narrow passageway for over seven hours.

Ominously, this individual was just feet away from the area in which John Jones would find himself stuck upside down years later.

In another incident, a teenager also found themselves stuck upside down in a tight crawl space. They were in that position overnight until they were rescued.

Due to the number of people getting stuck in the cave, in 2006, the area was closed to the public. It was discovered that inexperienced cavers were entering the cave in the dead of night without the proper safety gear.

In addition to this, the popularity of Nutty Putty saw the vast number of its explorers inadvertently smoothing the rock inside, causing the formation of what would be named “The Big Slide.”

Despite its fun name, The Big Slide would be considered dangerous to those who journeyed into the cave. The temporary closing of the cave was met with local resistance.

They argued that the closure was unfair and that it was down to spelunkers to manage their safety adequately. One caver even wrote to the local news to say how they were “tired of the government deciding it knows what’s best for us.”

A management team was assembled to ensure the area wasn’t a hazard. In March 2009, the Nutty Putty Cave reopened with a new set of criteria for cavers.

Spelunkers had to apply for a permit three weeks prior to venturing into the cave, and a minimum of two experienced cavers were required per group.

The local community welcomed the reopening, and it wasn’t long before teams of cavers were making their way to the complex crevices of Nutty Putty’s tunnels. 

The last group to make their way into the cave consisted of 12 people, one of whom was considered an experienced caver: John Edward Jones.

The Fateful Descent

John had always loved caving, along with his younger brother Josh. The siblings would use their love of the underground as a way to retain their brotherly bond.

Just before Thanksgiving in 2009, John returned home to Utah with his wife and one-year-old daughter. The Joneses wanted to relax and enjoy the holidays, and for John, that meant exploring Nutty Putty with his brother.

John Edward Jones and his wife.

The siblings had never been to this particular cave before and were excited to tackle it together.

At around 8 pm on November 24, John and his cohort of explorers entered the cave.

However, it had been a few years since the man had been spelunking, and he was no longer the small-framed teenager who easily made his way through the tricky traverse of the caves. John was now a well-built man who stood 6 feet tall.

Still, everything went smoothly to begin with, and the first hour was filled with excitement and fun for the group. Until a challenge was issued to John, Josh, and two of their friends to make their way through a section of the cave called the “Birth Canal.”

This part of the cave got its name due to how tight the passage was for the spelunkers crawling through – if they could manage it at all.

In order to make it out of the Birth Canal, you would go head-first through the limestone and make your way forward on your belly. The space was so tight you only had the use of your hips and fingers to maneuver through.

Many a caver had declined to embark on this route due to how small it was. On the other side of the Birth Canal was a small room, which is where the group wanted to get to.

John went first, shimmying his way through the compact space. However, unbeknown to the group, they weren’t in the Birth Canal.

They’d made a wrong turn and found themselves in an unmapped area that was incredibly small, too small for a human to make their way through. Even if they could, there was nothing on the other side. Past a certain point, there was no escape.

With John in front and the route only getting tighter, he wiggled into a gap that, unbeknown to him, went almost straight down into a dead end.

When he realized his mistake, it was too late. He kept crawling through the 10-by-18-inch crevice before coming to realize there was no way he could turn around. By this point, not only was he compressed by the cave walls, but he was upside down.

In a bid to make it through an exceptionally tight area, John had sucked his stomach in before shimmying forward. However, when he eventually exhaled, his stomach and chest expanded, rendering him well and truly stuck.

He was now confined to just 10 inches worth of space, and his arms were now stuck underneath his body. There was no room for him to wiggle himself free to unpin them.

John began shouting for his brother, who was behind him. When Josh found his sibling stuck upside down, he didn’t initially realize the seriousness of the situation.

He thought his brother had gotten himself into a tricky spot, something they’d laugh about once they were out of the cave.

However, it soon dawned on Josh that his brother couldn’t move at all. As the worried sibling tried to pull John from the crevice, the situation worsened: John slid further down the tight fissure. There was nothing at all the man could do to help himself. 

Map of Nutty Putty Cave and where John got stuck.

Josh raced 400 feet out of the cave and sought help. It took three hours before it arrived. Meanwhile, John was pinned upside down inside a tiny passage. A devout Christian, John prayed for his life while he awaited help.

When help did arrive, it would become apparent that a successful rescue would be no easy feat.

A Race Against Time

Susie Motola arrived at the Nutty Putty Cave just after midnight on November 25 and immediately understood the gravity of John’s situation.

Still, her job on the rescue team meant she had to stay calm in order to keep John calm, and she informed him that he’d be above ground in no time.

While she comforted John, she could only see the bottoms of his pants and his shoes sticking out of the crevice. “I really, really want to get out,” he told Susie.

The woman tried various techniques to pull John from his position to no avail. She couldn’t let John know it, but she was panicked by this point.

After two hours, she resurfaced from the depths of the cave and found dozens more rescuers had arrived on the scene. By this point, John’s distressed wife had also been informed of the situation and was anxiously waiting at the cave entrance.

While a big rescue team was willing to help, the narrowness of the cave ensured the rescue process would be slow. Only one person could get to John due to his location.

As it was being decided how to remove John from the cave best, his condition was getting worse. It’s unnatural to be upside down for long, let alone for hours on end. Blood was pooling in his lungs and brain.

The pressure on his cranium was no doubt torturous, and his heart was struggling to pump blood properly. Panic would intermittently set in for John, who flitted from dismay and calmness throughout his ordeal.

In a bid to quell the man’s fear, rescuers managed to lower a two-way radio near him so he could speak to his wife. This seemed to comfort him while the team was working out what to do next.

One idea involved pouring oil into the walls that trapped John, making it easier to pull him out. Another idea centered around breaking his legs before prising him from the crevice.

In the end, they went with another idea: they’d come up with a system of ropes and pulleys that would, in theory, hoist John from his position. By this point, he had been upside down for almost 20 hours. 

After hanging upside down for so long, it was a miracle that he was still alive – but he was. However, he made a rattling noise when he breathed.

Fluid was pooling in John’s lungs, and the rescue team didn’t have much longer before he succumbed to his dire situation.

Holes were drilled into the walls to attach the pulleys, and the rope was tied around John’s feet. Eight men were tasked with pulling the man, using their strength in tandem.

The pulling would cause John great pain since his legs would push against the cave walls each time they hoisted him. This meant the rescue mission involved regular breaks to give John some respite, but still, it was working.

Eventually, John was pulled up far enough for the first rescuer to make eye contact with him. Tired, in pain, and eager to get out, John told the rescuer, “It sucks. I can’t believe I’m upside down.”

The pulley system seemed to be doing its job. Fresh air was almost within John’s reach. Until the rope went loose. 

All eight rescuers were flung backwards. One of the bolts that attached the pulley to the wall had broken off. The cave wall had crumbled around it, causing the system to fail.

The man nearest to John had been knocked out by a flying piece of debris caused by the pulley breakage.

John had slid right back down the fissure again, this time further into the crevice, finding himself stuck yet again.

With John’s first rescuer injured from the knock to the face, he was unable to carry on with the mission. Another person took his place, but the setback took precious time away that John didn’t have.

By the time another rescue worker got to John, he wasn’t responding. Still, he could hear him breathing, albeit his breaths were shallow and infrequent. There was a glimmer – however small – of hope.

They were unaware that he’d gone into cardiac arrest. Emily, John’s wife, was told that it was likely he’d passed away, but she couldn’t comprehend that idea.

She’d been speaking to him not long ago; how could he be dead? She tried to speak to him on the two-way radio again, this time to no avail. Her worst fear slowly began to seep into reality.

A medical professional was enlisted to head down to John to assess the situation. Sadly, John Edward Jones was pronounced dead 28 hours after getting trapped in the cave. He was only 26 years old.

Officials did their best to resume the task of getting him out, but this time, it wasn’t a rescue mission; it was a recovery mission.

However, it was proving just as difficult as before, and some extreme ideas were discussed in order to get John’s body out of the cave, some of which didn’t include removing him intact.

In the end, though, it was deemed too dangerous to try and carry on with the mission. A decision was made to seal the entrance to the Nutty Putty Cave and leave John’s body inside.

He will forever remain inside, and nobody can ever reenter the cave.

A memorial plaque had been installed at the cave entrance in honor of John. His family praised him as a committed father, husband, son, and brother.

The plaque placed at Nutty Putty Cave commemorating John Jones.

His family says they remember John for his good nature, sense of humor, strong work ethic, and genuine love of people.

A final tragic element to this tale is that John’s wife, Emily, was in the early stages of pregnancy with their second child at the time he died.


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