Body will remain in sealed Utah County cave

Published: Saturday, Nov. 28 2009 12:00 a.m. MST

Leon Jones (left), father of John Jones who died in the Nutty Putty Cave after a 27 hour rescue attempt, and Josh Jones, bother of John, hold back emotions during a press conference at the Utah County Sheriff's office Friday.

Stuart Johnson, Deseret News

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.

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