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Man dies after day trapped upside-down in cave

The brother of a man who died after being trapped for nearly 28 hours 700 feet inside a Utah cave said his family is remarkably strong but struggles to make sense of what happened.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The brother of a man who died early Thursday trapped 700 feet inside a Utah cave said his family is remarkably strong but struggles to make sense of what happened.

John Jones, 26, of Stansbury Park, died nearly 28 hours after he became stuck upside-down in Nutty Putty Cave, a popular spelunking site about 80 miles south of Salt Lake City.

His death is the first known fatality at the cave, according to the Utah County sheriff's office.

"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.

Workers at one point had freed John Jones, but a rope and pulley system failed and he became stuck a second time.

"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.

His funeral is planned for Saturday in Stansbury Park.

He had a wife and 8-month-old daughter and was a second-year medical student at the University of Virginia. In a statement, the family said the couple was expecting their second child in June. They also praised the rescuers.

"We are deeply thankful for the compassion and care they showed John and our family — even to the point of singing John primary songs to help get him through the night," the statement said.

A recovery effort to extract John Jones' body from the cave was on hold Thursday as the Utah County sheriff's office tried to determine how best to proceed, Sgt. Spencer Cannon said.

It's unclear when the effort will resume. Rescue teams had been using drilling equipment to try and free Jones from the cave. Cannon said recovery work can be more aggressive than a rescue because the victim's well-being is considered differently.

18 inches wide, 10 inches high
John Jones was part of a group of 11 people exploring the cave passages. The 6-foot-tall, 190-pound spelunker got stuck with his head at an angle below his feet about 9 p.m. MST Tuesday. At times more than 50 rescuers were involved in trying to free him.

The crevice was about 150 feet below ground in an L-shaped area of the cave known as "Bob's Push," which is only about 18 inches wide and 10 inches high, said Utah County Sheriff's Department spokesman Sgt. Spencer Cannon.

Jones was freed from the crevice late Wednesday afternoon but fell back several feet into the tight space when an anchor in the cave roof that supported the pulley system failed, Cannon said.

Rescuers were able to get him food and water during that temporary freedom. But in the hours after he became wedged again, Jones' physical condition deteriorated.

"It's a tough," Cannon said. "It's not very often where you come in, you have high hopes and you are going into an operation you have done before with success and then you get into a situation where it doesn't go as you planned."

Previous rescues there
Search and rescue workers successfully rescued two people from the same spot in the 1,500-foot-long cave during the same week in 2004.

"Caving isn't generally considered to be a dangerous sport," Cannon said. "But I think you can safely say this is a dangerous spot in that cave."

Cannon said the sheriff's office wouldn't give an opinion about whether the cave should remain open for recreation or be closed.

The cave is privately owned by Utah's State Institutional Trust Land Administration. Reservations and an access pass is required to explore the cave, with usage restricted to about six groups daily.

Cave access manager, Michael Leavitt said the Jones group had a pass and were experienced cavers, based on the information provided on a pass application.

"They've never been to Nutty Putty before, but they toured many harder caves in the Logan area that required vertical climbing skills," said Leavitt, one of dozens of cavers who volunteered with the rescue effort. "They were qualified, John was qualified. I'm sure he went into this passage hoping it was going to open up into one of the larger rooms."

The application and pass system is designed to make sure those who go into the cave either have adequate experience or a guide to ensure their safety, Leavitt said.

Nutty Putty is now closed until a decision can be made about its future, Leavitt said.