No One Could Save John Jones From His Tragic Spelunking Accident - But His Death Sparked Change

During the evening of November 24, 2009, John Jones and a group of fellow cave explorers entered Nutty Putty Cave located near Salt Lake City, UT. Nutty Putty is a hydrothermal cave known for its tight twists and crawl spaces; management has occasionally closed this cave off to the public due to its dangerous conditions. Yet spelunkers of all ages are always keen to navigate the crevice, and Jones was no exception. Unfortunately, Nutty Putty became Jones's final resting place.

While exploring the cave, Jones got wedged in a small opening and was unable to free himself. Rescuers tried to save him, but after a long, dramatic, and ultimately unsuccessful rescue attempt, John perished, leaving a wife, a daughter, and an unborn son behind. The 2016 film The Last Descent retold Jones's story to the world at large. In the years following Jones's death, researchers have initiated efforts to better understand caving injuries and deaths to make spelunking safer. 

  • John Jones Spent The Last 28 Hours Of His Life Sandwiched Between Two Pieces Of Rock
    Photo: Ken Lund / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

    John Jones Spent The Last 28 Hours Of His Life Sandwiched Between Two Pieces Of Rock

    John Jones and his fellow spelunkers, including his brother Josh, had experience with caving, though this was John's first time at Nutty Putty. Some considered Nutty Putty a "beginner's cave," but it had several narrow spaces where people had previously gotten stuck. It was a controlled-access location, but given their experience, Jones and his friends received permission from management to go spelunking.

    John and Josh, with two others, broke off from the rest of the group in Nutty Putty to find the "Birth Canal," a challenging, tight section of the cave's passages. John went into "Bob's Push" headfirst, but his body was too big to make its way through the opening. He spent the remainder of his life surrounded by rock, 150 feet below the surface of the Earth, unable to free himself from its clutches. Despite the arrival of a massive rescue crew which tried to save him, Jones died around midnight on November 26.

  • John Was Stuck Upside Down For Almost Eight Hours
    Photo: craighagan / flickr / CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

    John Was Stuck Upside Down For Almost Eight Hours

    John's position in the cave was problematic from the outset. At six feet tall and weighing 180 pounds, John got wedged into a situation where his head was below his feet, causing the blood to rush to his upper torso and head. When trauma doctor Doug Murdock heard this, he immediately felt alarmed: "Being upside down, your body has to pump the blood out of the brain all the time... your body isn't set up to do that... The entire system starts to fail."

  • More Than 130 Rescuers Showed Up And Worked For Hours To Free Jones

    As the hours went by, more people arrived to help John. Volunteers from two cave exploration organizations and personnel from 10 neighboring fire departments worked to free John, with more than 130 people on the scene in total. The rescuers invested 3,700 cumulative hours of effort, and stood side by side with the family throughout the ordeal. State Senator John Valentine, a rescue worker with about 30 years' worth of experience, called the rescue "very agonizing." Authorities credited John's kind and caring family with helping the rescuers, as they experienced the emotional roller coaster of the experience. 


  • Rescuers Devised A Pulley System To Try Extrapolating Him
    Photo: Fattonyi / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    Rescuers Devised A Pulley System To Try Extrapolating Him

    The first goal of the rescue team was to get John into a situation that would minimize strain on his heart and lungs. With the use of ropes and pulleys, rescuers were able to move John out of his hellish upside down position, but before long, the pulley system broke and John slid back into the crevice. 

    After the pulley system failed, rescuers started to rig up a second rope and pulley mechanism to help him. John's body was already showing signs of respiratory failure, however.

  • Rescuers Considered Using Gallons Of Vegetable Oil To Slide Jones Out Of The Cave

    Once rescuers realized how difficult it was to free John, they started brainstorming. They considered greasing him - so they ordered six gallons of vegetable oil to try to slide him out. They also thought about using explosives, but the danger to John was too great. Using chisels and axes was also possibilities, but it took hours to chip away small amounts of rock. Unfortunately, John's position made it challenging for large equipment to get near him. The time-consuming nature of using hand tools wasn't ideal given John's head-down position, so they opted to use a rope and pulley system to raise him up. 

    It worked temporarily, and after his head raised slightly via the ropes and pulleys, rescuers were able to give him an IV, food, and water; they were hopeful the worst was over, as they considered their next move. The progress didn't last long. One of the bolts anchoring the pulleys broke, and John was back into his initial position. The "equipment failure" was supposedly the result of a lack of rock integrity. 

  • John's Brother, Josh, Stayed And Prayed With Him Until Rescuers Arrived

    When he dove into "Bob's Push," John went head first into the 18" x 10" section, which officials later described as a "L-shaped pinpoint." Rescuers believe that John initially tried to wiggle himself free, but only wedged himself further into the space. His body was in bent position, and there was a lip of rock that "basically captured the center part of his body." 

    Once it was clear that Jones couldn't escape on his own or with help of his fellow cavers, authorities became involved. Josh stayed with his brother until rescuers arrived. The two talked, prayed, and sang hymns until help was on the way. At this point, John told Josh, "Go get 'em, brother."