ELBERTA, Utah County — Despite more than a full day of rescue efforts, John Edward Jones died around midnight Wednesday while trapped in a tight section of Nutty Putty Cave. He leaves behind a wife and a baby daughter, and a second child expected in June.
According to a family statement released Thursday, Jones will be remembered for "his good nature, delightful sense of humor, strong work ethic, a genuine love of people, a masterful ability to relate to children, a love of and unwavering faith in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and his commitment to his family as an amazing husband, father, son and brother."
The family – including Jones' wife and daughter, parents, four brothers, two sisters and 16 nieces and nephews – said in the statement that they are grateful for the rescue efforts and know officials "did all they could to get John out," including singing Primary songs to help get him through the night.
"We'll never fully understand how or why it was John's time to leave us. But we find comfort knowing that he fulfilled his purpose here on Earth, and that we will be reunited with him again," the family stated, adding thanks to many people and agencies that have helped them and Jones. "Thank you, and God bless all of you on this Thanksgiving Day."
Utah County Sheriff's Sgt. Eldon Packer said Jones, 26, became unresponsive before midnight and had difficulty breathing several hours before. Shortly after midnight a rescuer was able to get close enough to confirm the Stansbury Park man had died.
"The emotional factor alone will have a toll on the rescuers," Sgt. Spencer Cannon said. "We weren't able to get him out quick enough."
The recovery effort was shut down for the night. Sheriff's deputies returned to the site Thursday morning. Once a plan has been determined, Cannon said the rescuers will arrive and continue doing the same work they did in the 27 hours leading up to Jones' death as his body is still stuck in the same crevice.
"We're still in the uncertainty phase in terms of how they're going to bring Jones out," Cannon said Thursday. "We're back to where we were (during the) 27 hours, and once we get him unstuck it's still a two or three hour process of getting him back up."
In the meantime, sheriff's officials have declared the cave a public hazard. They've closed all access to the area and it will be guarded by uniformed deputies. Cannon said they are considering closing the cave permanently but have not made a concrete decision.
The death of Jones, the first in the cave to date, prompted officials to reevaluate the monitoring of the cave since it became a controlled access point in 2004.
Though Cannon said they were able to get some air-powered tools into the cave to chip away at some of the rock that trapped him, Jones most likely died from the pressure on his body and his inability to breathe. He was wedged around his mid-torso and upper hip area.
"Due to the circumstances with his body being held the way it was and being wedged, it was most likely difficult to get a full deep breath," Cannon said. "It would have affected his ability to breathe adequately."
Rescuers first responded to the call about Jones 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 18-inch by 10-inch "L-shaped pinpoint."
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 Wednesday evening. "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.
For a few hours there were sighs of tentative relief. They finally cracked open the boxes of pizza and cases of water, and broke out in smiles suggesting the worst was over.
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.
Thursday morning, rescuers were able to determine that the equipment failure occurred because one of the anchors that had been drilled into the rock had come undone.
"It must have been the integrity of the rock because the anchors are usually quite reliable," Cannon said. "It wasn't how they put things together."
By late Wednesday night, after 24 hours of rescue attempts, those trying to save Jones were essentially back to square one.
Efforts to free Jones involved the aid of more than 100 rescue workers from agencies all over the state. Responders were on the remote scene Tuesday night within an hour of receiving calls from family members.
Josh Jones said that once he first 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.
His family remained with him at the scene, later joined by his parents and his wife. They were able to communicate with him using a radio network set up by police. The family left the area early Thursday after they were informed of Jones' death, but Cannon said the family was "incredibly solid."
"They've been very supportive through the whole thing," Cannon said Thursday. "They're very understanding that the rescuers did all they could."
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.
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 most of the ordeal.
"He's been really tough under the circumstances," Josh Jones said Wednesday afternoon. "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, 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.
"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 this rescue effort was the fifth in the cave's history. Past fears for injured explorers led to requirements for a permit system and the cave being shut down in May 2006.
Contributing: Wendy Leonard