Published: Friday, Nov. 27, 2009 9:53 p.m. MST
SPANISH FORK — The Nutty Putty Cave will serve as the final resting place for John Jones.
It was a difficult decision as evidenced by the cracking voices and watering eyes of officials who made the announcement Friday, many of whom are still reeling from the devastation of Jones' death.
The decision to not retrieve the body and permanently seal the cave near Elberta was made after numerous meetings with state and county officials, caving experts, search and rescue team members and those in Jones' family.
Jones, 26, of Stansbury Park, died in the cave late Wednesday after he became stuck in an 18-inch by 10-inch L-shaped "pinch point" in an unnamed area of the cave. A 27-hour rescue involving more than 130 volunteers was mounted within an hour of the 911 call that went out late Tuesday, but Jones ultimately lost consciousness and died.
"There will be no future efforts to remove the body because of where it's located and the danger of accessing the area. The risk is too high," Utah County Sheriff's Sgt. Spencer Cannon said.
Sheriff Jim Tracy said the decision was made out of respect for the family and considering the fact that this is the fifth incident of this kind in the cave within the past 10 years.
The decision to seal the cave is controversial since the cave has been a popular site for caving enthusiasts and area recreationists since the 1960s.
"We live in an active, outdoorsy area and that doesn't come without risks," Tracy said. "We don't want to take what we love about Utah out of our lives. … This decision gives us the opportunity to respect the family and properly address a final resting place for John."
The decision to seal the entire cave was made because officials believe the area is too dangerous. Cannon said no other recreation area in the county has a 1-to-5 death ratio.
Because of Jones' death, officials say the area is now considered a sacred place, which reinforced the decision to seal the cave in its entirety.
"We considered sealing off access to different portions of the cave, but thought it would not be appropriate to have recreationists going near his final resting place," Cannon said. "Other areas in the cave present similar dangers."
The decision to close the cave was a unanimous one — a point that was made clear by representatives from the county, state lands, caving groups and the family.
"When we made the decision, there was no voice of dissent," Cannon said. "There was nostalgia and sadness, but everybody felt it had to happen."
Josh Jones said that while his brother wouldn't want to "inhibit anybody from exploring or having adventures," as he was an active outdoorsmen, the family believes sealing the cave is the right thing to do, given the fact that John Jones' predicament wasn't an isolated incident.
"We feel that John would want to protect the safety of future cavers," Josh Jones said.
The family is working to set up a fund in John Jones' name to promote safe caving, he said. And family members are planning on setting up a memorial near the mouth of the cave.
Utah County Sheriff's Sgt. Tom Hodgson, who heads up search and rescue operations for the county, said the effort to rescue John Jones was the most difficult of his 30-year career. He said the cave will be sacred not only to family, but also to the 137 rescuers who logged more than 3,700 man hours at the site.
He said the rescuers put forth a "Herculean effort" toward saving Jones and spoke of the frustration rescuers felt at being within arm's-length of him, only to see the situation end in his death.
The area where Jones was trapped was so narrow, it was difficult to get rescuers or even tools in there, Hodgson said. One rescuer, equipped with a hammer, was able to situate himself in the passage near Jones, but he only had a six-inch area to work in.
Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, has been a search and rescue worker for 29 years and was at the scene this week. He said the family's encouragement and support was crucial, but said rescuers were finding it "very difficult" to come to terms with being unable to save Jones.
Josh Jones said his family wants the rescuers to know that they appreciate their efforts.
"We want to thank the rescue workers for their heroic efforts," he said. "We know there are those who feel they failed our family, but we know they did their best. We don't place blame on anyone. We want to thank them from the bottom of our hearts."
Sheriff's officials conducted two rescue operations at the cave in 2004 — one in the same general area where Jones died. Rescuers successfully extracted that individual, a 16-year-old boy, primarily because he was smaller than Jones and was located four feet closer to rescuers, Hodgson said.
The cave, characterized as a "drain on resources" because its remote location often leads to would-be explorers becoming lost or disoriented while searching for the cave, was closed in 2006.
Timpanogos Grotto, the local chapter of the National Speleological Society, spent "thousands of hours" working to have the cave re-opened as a controlled access point, said cave access manager Michael Leavitt. The club, which has been managing access to the since-gated cave, was praised by sheriff's officials for conducting a good, effective system.
Leavitt was visibly saddened Friday, both at the loss of Jones as well as the decision to close the cave. He said the Nutty Putty Cave has many unique features that make it unlike any other in the country. A conglomeration of rock and clay make it particularly "special," he said.
"There are tears at the thought that you invested all this time in bringing out this result and for John's family to have to go through this," Leavitt said. "It was just an unfortunate accident."
Leavitt said at least a two-week process was required to gain access to the cave, which was guarded by a locked gate installed 12 feet deep and 8 feet into the cave. The code on the lock was changed regularly, said Timpanogos Grotto chairman Max Barker.
Barker and Leavitt describe it as a beginner's cave, though there are many dangerous areas inside, like the one where Jones became stuck. Leavitt said that area wasn't even on maps provided to caving groups because those making the maps would look at the passageway and think it "humanly impossible" to enter.
Kim Christy, assistant director of the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, which owns the land on which the cave sits, said members of his organization were distraught when they heard of Jones' death. The cave has always been "a balancing act of risks," he said.
Officials will be meeting Monday to discuss the logistics behind sealing the cave and how to speed up the process. Christy said the group hopes to have the cave sealed within two to three weeks.
In the meantime, the Utah County Sheriff's Office plans to keep a uniformed deputy there to prevent access to the site.
"As it's now the final resting place of a person, we're not going to allow anyone in there to molest the area," Tracy said. "We want to ensure nothing else will be done in any way to molest the area."
A memorial service for Jones will be held 11 a.m. today at the Stansbury Park Stake Center, 417 E. Benson Road in Stansbury Park. Jones leaves behind a young daughter, Elizabeth, and his wife, Emily, who is expecting their second child in June.
In lieu of flowers, the family has asked that contributions be made to the John and Emily Jones Memorial Fund at Wells Fargo Bank or Utah Community Credit Union or to the Emily Jones Children Donation at Zions National Bank.
How to help
Contributions to the widow and children of John Jones can be made to the John and Emily Jones Memorial Fund at Wells Fargo Bank or Utah Community Credit Union or to the Emily Jones Children Donation at Zions National Bank.How to help
Contributions to John Jones' family can be made to the John and Emily Jones Memorial Fund at Wells Fargo Bank or Utah Community Credit Union or to the Emily Jones Children Donation at Zions National Bank.