Published: Wednesday, Nov. 25, 2009 9:13 p.m. MST
ELBERTA, Utah County — For a few hours there were sighs of tentative relief. They finally cracked open the boxes of pizza and cases of water, and broke smiles suggesting the worst was over. Rescuers had been trying to extract John Jones, 26, from a narrow niche in Nutty Putty cave for more than 18 hours, and they thought they had succeeded. The 6-foot-tall, 190-pound man was no longer hanging headfirst.
That only lasted for a few hours.
Once Jones was free of the 18-by-10-inch crevice, rescuers said an "equipment failure" caused the rope system that was hoisting the man out of the cave to drop him back into the same, narrow gap.
By late Wednesday night, after 24 hours of rescue attempts, those trying to save Jones were essentially back to square one.
They first responded to the call around 9 p.m. Tuesday. Jones had entered the caves with a group of 11 others, but decided to explore a different route, his brother Josh Jones said. Josh Jones said his brother continued through the tight passageway known as the Birth Canal to Bob's Push, described by police as an "L-shaped pinpoint."
Josh Jones said that once he realized his brother was stuck, his first instinct was to pray. Those in the cave offered what he called a "series of prayers" before making the decision to call 911 around 9:30 p.m.
Responders were on the scene within an hour, swiftly escalating the early-evening outing into the cave into a dramatic rescue mission that would eventually require the aid of more than 100 rescue workers from agencies around the state.
Rescue crews from the Utah County sheriff's search and rescue team, in addition to fire officials from Goshen and Santaquin and caving experts, answered the call to offer assistance at the cave, located on the west side of Utah Lake. Rescue workers from Midvale, Salt Lake City, West Valley City, South Jordan and other agencies were also on the scene.
Shawn Roundy, a rescuer with Utah County Sheriff's Office, said they had difficulty reaching John Jones, as he was stuck in "absolutely the worst spot in the cave."
"It's very narrow, very awkward, and it's difficult to get rescuers down there," Roundy said. "It's a really tight spot, but we've been able to get around him. We were able to hold his hand at some point."
He said they were able to free Jones initially using a rope-pulley system. At that point, Jones had been hanging, headfirst, at a 70- or 80-degree angle for more than eight hours, said Utah County Sheriff's Sgt. Tom Hodgson.
It was around 4:30 p.m. Wednesday when rescuers got him loose. They were able to give him an IV, food and water. He also received a needed morale boost after he was able to talk to his wife over a police radio.
Officials said John Jones, a University of Virginia medical school student home visiting his family in Stansbury Park for Thanksgiving, was able to keep his spirits relatively high throughout the day.
"He's been really tough under the circumstances," Josh Jones said. "There were periods of panic, disorientation, but he's in good spirits now."
But after the malfunction returned him to the same crevice where he'd been stuck for 24 hours Utah County Sheriff's Sgt. Spencer Cannon said the situation was "tenuous at best." As of late Wednesday night, Jones was lodged in a crevice about 125 feet below ground level and as much as 700 feet into the cave.
"He's not in great shape physically, there's a lot of pressure on his upper body and back? but he's been amazingly resilient and he has incredibly high spirits under the circumstances."
He said some rescuers had been on the scene for a full 24 hours, but that there were people from close to a dozen different organizations who could relieve them. Cannon said they're committed to staying as long as it takes.
"As long as he's in there, there will be people in there with him working."
The Nutty Putty Cave is actually a hole on the top of a hill about seven miles west of state Road 68.
In 2004, three rescues were conducted there. In each case, explorers had become stuck and were extracted with no serious injuries. The incidents, however, led the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, which owns the land, to make the cave a controlled access area.
Cave enthusiast Jon Jasper, who helped survey the popular Utah County grotto in 2003, said the current rescue is the fifth in the cave's history, and past fears for injured explorers led to requirements for a permit system and the cave being shut down in May 2006.