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Man dies after being trapped in cave nearly 28 hours

Posted - Nov. 26, 2009 at 6:09 p.m.


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(Photos at the cave site are courtesy of the Utah County Sheriff's Office. People seen in these photos are of rescuers) UTAH COUNTY -- There has been a tragic end to a Thanksgiving vacation caving expedition. Medical student John Jones was pronounced dead overnight after being trapped in a Utah County cave more than 27 hours.

"We were able to send one of our cavers in close enough to him," said Sgt. Eldon Packer of the Utah County Sheriff's Office. "They were able to check him and determine he did pass away."

Hundreds of search and rescue workers were in the midst of their second exhausting night, trying frantically to pry John Jones loose from an area called Ed's Push in the Nutty Putty Cave. Just before midnight they realized he was dead.

"We all were very optimistic and hopeful. But it became increasingly clear last night after he got re-stuck that there weren't very many options left," Jones' brother, Spencer Jones, 30, of San Francisco, told The Associated Press.

The rescuers never saw much more than his feet and ankles. They were agonizingly close, but they just couldn't pull him out. Since Tuesday night, they struggled against the unforgiving topography of Nutty Putty Cave.

"We've never seen anything this technical, this tough, to get in and get this person out," Packer said.

The rescuers had to squeeze through narrow, twisting passageways. Jones' feet were sticking out, his head down, his body completely plugging a narrow tunnel 10 to 14 inches wide. [CLICK HERE to view a map of the Nutty Putty Cave]

"Where he is trapped, he is on a bend," Packer said. "So there's no way to really get a hold on him to be able to pull directly straight back."

"It was very agonizing on this particular search," said State Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, who has been a volunteer search and rescue worker for 30 years.

The problem rescuers could not overcome was a small lip of rock at a critical bend in the narrow tunnel.

"The lip basically captured the center part of his body," Valentine said, "so that as you pulled against it, you were pulling like against a fish hook. It would hang up just underneath the rib cage, against the lip that was in the narrow part of the cave."

Rescuers bolted a pulley system into the rock for more leverage. That moved Jones a little ways, until a bolt failed, according to Sgt. Spencer Cannon of the Utah County Sheriff's Office.

"A roof anchor gave way, causing him to fall back down into the area where he had been stuck previously," Cannon said.

It's not known if that setback contributed to Jones' death. The trapped man had trouble breathing for hours. Sometime before midnight his vital signs stopped, and rescuers exited the cave.

"We thought he was in the clear and then when we got the news that he had slipped again. That's when we started to get scared," Spencer Jones said.

"We have to be very careful," Cannon said. "It's very dangerous down there, as is evidenced by the fact that we've had, five years ago we had, two within a week almost in the exact same spot."

Jones' family speaks to the media

John Jones was a family man home for the holiday. Today his father, LDS bishop and neighbors spoke to us in Stansbury Park.

Jones grew up in St. George, but his family moved to Stansbury Park about five years ago. Now many people in this community are mourning his death.

His bishop said, "We remember John foremost for his good nature and delightful sense of humor."

Jones lived life fully and adventurously. He's survived by a pregnant wife and their baby daughter.

"John had come home to Stansbury Park for Thanksgiving and looked forward to enjoying the holiday surrounded by his wife, daughter, family and friends," his bishop said.

A young boy and his grandfather who lived down the street were especially close to Jones and his family.

Neighbor Lee Childs said, "They're just salt of the earth. They'd do anything for you, whatever you needed."

Jones went to BYU and served his mission in Ecuador. He was in his second year of medical school at the University of Virginia, studying to be a pediatric cardiologist.

Jones loved the outdoors and explored caves before, but this one was different. Thursday his father couldn't thank rescue workers enough, even though his son is gone.

"Thank you very much for coming. Thank you for your interest in supporting our family and especially for your prayers and John's predicament he was in," he said.

His brother Spencer Jones said the family of five boys and two girls was close, and his brother was a wonderful person.

"He would have done anything for you, so that's what makes it even harder. It's senseless," he said.

Meanwhile, officials still aren't sure how to recover the body and return it Jones' loved ones.

Talk of closing the cave

After those earlier incidents, authorities considered closing the cave. Instead they allowed a caving group to manage it. Now the option of sealing it off is back on the table.

"No one's in a position to hastily do that at this juncture, but we want to discuss that seriously tomorrow," said Kim Christy, assistant director of the Utah School & Institutional Trust Lands Administration, which owns the land where the cave is located.

"Part of the problem," Cannon said, "is that the only real options we have are those that were employed yesterday that just weren't working."

Meetings are planned for Friday to discuss the future of the cave and the body recovery effort, a grim assignment for many people on this holiday weekend.

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Compiled by John Hollenhorst, Nicole Gonzales and the Associated Press.

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