SALT LAKE CITY – A medical student who died in a Utah cave was the third spelunker in recent years to get stuck in the same tiny crevice but the only one to die — an outcome that devastated the dozens of rescuers who worked for more than a day to save him.
John Jones, 26, died early Thursday morning nearly 28 hours after he got stuck in Nutty Putty Cave, a popular spelunking site south of Salt Lake City. It was the first known fatality since cavers began exploring the 1,500-foot cave's narrow passageways in the 1960s, cave access manager Michael Leavitt said.
Utah County sheriff's office Sgt. Spencer Cannon said rescuers, who numbered well above 50 at times, were shocked and deeply saddened by the outcome.
"It's a tough" situation, 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."
Search and rescue workers successfully pulled two people from the same spot in the 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."
Nutty Putty is now closed until a decision is made about its future, Leavitt said. Cannon said the sheriff's office wouldn't give an opinion about whether it should remain open.
Family members described Jones as an outdoors lover and experienced caver who was expecting the birth of his second child next year.
"He had explored many caves and maneuvered his way through many tight spaces before," the family said in a statement issued late Thursday.
For the past two years, Jones was attending medical school at the University of Virginia, hoping to pursue a career as pediatric cardiologist. Jones, his wife Emily and their 13-month-old daughter had come home to Utah for the Thanksgiving holiday and to share the news that another baby is expected in June.
Family said they knew Jones fought to survive throughout the rescue effort and was commended by rescue crews for "his remarkable good spirits and resilience to the end."
Exploring Nutty Putty, which is privately owned by Utah's State Institutional Trust Land Administration, requires reservations, an access pass and, for safety reasons, either caving experience or an experienced guide. The Jones group of 11 explorers, including some of his four brothers, met all three of those criteria, Leavitt said.
"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 6-foot-tall, 190-pound Jones got stuck with his head at an angle below his feet about 9 p.m. Tuesday in an L-shaped area of the cave known as "Bob's Push." The area is only about 18 inches wide and 10 inches high.
On Wednesday, teams used drilling equipment, rope and a pulley system to try to free Jones.
At one point, they had moved him roughly 12 feet out of the tight crevice, far enough to give him some food and water. But he slipped back into the space when an anchor in the cave roof that supported the pulley system failed, Cannon said.
"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.
After he succumbed early Thursday, rescuers suspended efforts to recover his body as they considered the options to do so, Cannon said.
He said the cause of death would be released later by the medical examiner. A memorial service is planned for Saturday.
Spencer Jones said his family is "remarkably strong," but is struggling to make sense of what happened.
"It's just you just never expect any thing like this," he said. "We don't understand it."