John Edward Jones visited Nutty Putty Cave with his brother Josh and 11 others on Nov. 24, 2009, only months after the cave was reopened. While attempting to find the Birth Canal, Jones took a wrong turn and ended up in an unmapped section of the cave near Ed’s Push. Thinking he saw a larger opening on the other side, Jones tried to squeeze headfirst through the tight spot and turn around, but he became hopelessly wedged at a 70-degree angle.
“As cavers, that’s one of the things we’re taught not to do, go head first into a tight squeeze going downward,” says Paulson. “Had he been oriented the other way, it’s my opinion he would have gotten out.”
News cameras broadcast the 27-hour ordeal in which 137 volunteers attempted to rescue Jones, who began to lose consciousness as blood pooled in his head and put increasing stress on his heart. Downey remembers getting a phone call at 1 or 2 a.m.
“I was the Grotto secretary and I had all of the contact information for the local caving community,” says Downey. “They told me, ‘I need to get contact information for really skinny cavers.'”
Rescuers installed a system of 15 pulleys to try and free Jones, but the clay walls of the cave couldn’t bear the weight. One rescuer was badly injured when a pulley ripped free and struck him in the face. Despite the heroic effort to save him, Jones died a few minutes before midnight, the day before Thanksgiving. He left behind his wife Emily, a young daughter and a baby boy on the way (he’s named John).
Downey says that many of the volunteer rescuers were traumatized by the experience and some haven’t entered a cave since. When it became clear that Jones’ remains couldn’t be extricated from the cave, Nutty Putty was permanently closed and sealed as Jones’ final resting place.
Paulson mourns the death of Jones, but insists that caving is a very safe activity, especially when it’s done with the right equipment and with an experienced guide.
“That’s why there are grottos of the National Speleological Society like ours all over the United States,” says Paulson. “We’re here to inform, teach and get people into caving safely.”