Medical student dies in cave

Friends, family members remember kind, devoted father, future pediatrician


After spending nearly 28 hours trapped in a Utah cave, second-year Medical student John Jones died late Wednesday. Rescue efforts failed to extract the 26-year-old, who classmates described as a loving, devoted and optimistic family man.

Jones was wedged in a passageway of Nutty Putty Cave that was 18 inches wide and about 10 inches high, positioned head-down at about a 60 to 70 degree angle, said Sgt. Spencer Cannon, the Utah County Sheriff's Office public information officer.

This position was part of the reason rescue efforts failed, he said. Rescuers faced similar cramped confines and sharp angles as they worked to free Jones.

"It was very, very difficult to get him into any kind of position where they could move him at all," Cannon said.

Rescuers moved Jones millimeters at a time and eventually repositioned him, securing him with climbing equipment and gear so that he was no longer head-down, he said. One of the anchors the rescuers had drilled into the roof of the cave gave way, however, and Jones slipped back into the passageway, Cannon said.

A few hours before his death, Jones had trouble breathing and lost consciousness, he said. Being immobilized for an extended period of time has physiological effects on an individual, causing bodily systems to stop working the way they are supposed to and to possibly shut down, Cannon said.

The exact cause of Jones' death, however, most likely will never be known, Cannon noted. Officials have permanently closed Nutty Putty Cave - which is near Salt Lake City and has been the site of other spelunking emergencies - and will erect a memorial to Jones outside its former entrance.

Closer to Grounds, those that knew Jones remembered him as a kind and welcoming individual and also a committed father and husband.

Second-year Medical student George Glass said Jones was one of the first people he met at orientation a year and a half ago.

"One of the first things I noticed when I met him was just that he was very friendly and humorous," he said. "[Jones] was very approachable and was always kind, always trying to help other people out."

Second-year Medical student Rauda Tellawi described Jones as kind, sincere and open to meeting new people from a variety of backgrounds and creeds.

"He was a very rare type of person," she said. "He was probably ... the nicest person I've ever met."

As a Medical student who aspired to be a pediatrician, Jones was very busy, second-year Medical student Chris Bailey said, but "regardless of how tired he was or how hard he was working, he always had a smile for you when you saw him in the library or in the halls."

His friends also spoke about Jones' commitment to his family and his religion.

"I think the thing that impressed me most about John is what a remarkable father he was," Bailey said. Both he and Glass recalled how Jones would play with his 14-month-old daughter at church picnics and potlucks.

"It was just nice to see how much he loved his family," Glass said, adding that Jones did everything he could to bring joy to his family.

"The thing that you instantly noticed about John was that the things that were the most important to him were his family, his wife and his little daughter," fourth-year Medical student Ryan Harris said. Emily Jones, his wife, is currently pregnant with the couple's second child.

Harris described Jones' religion and his church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, as very important to him. "He was very devoted to his church," Bailey said. Both he and Harris spoke of Jones' work in providing translation services for Spanish-speaking members of the congregation, as well as his commitment to teaching others about his religion. Tellawi, who is Muslim, also recalled Jones' interest in learning about her religion in addition to his own.

"The way he practiced his faith and the way he interacted with others show that he was ... [possessed] a much greater strength of character than so many people I met," she said. "That's what I remember him as."

Cannon described Jones as possessing a similar strength while he was trapped near the end of his life.

"He had remarkably good spirits throughout really the entire thing, despite his incredibly difficult circumstance," he said. During the last few hours of his life, Jones was able to communicate with his family through a radio system, telling them jokes while trapped below surface, Cannon said.

A funeral service for Jones was held Saturday in Utah.

"[He] loved his family, liked helping others and really lived his values," Bailey said. "You could see how much he valued other people and how much he valued his family - it really came across in his actions"

Published December 1, 2009 in News

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(12/01/09 7:15pm)

When I read this article, my heart broke and I started crying. I cannot imagine the pain and fear he must have gone through down in that cave, yet I was struck by his immense strength-- even in his final moments he was able to laugh. I know that his family is going through a deeply emotional time, especially knowing that they will never truly be able to bury him and move on. Let this be a lesson on how short life is and why you have to embrace life at every moment. I am inspired by John's bravery and can only hope that when my time comes, I will have as much courage as he did.

To his family: know that every Wahoo is grieving for him. May you find peace in this difficult time.

(12/02/09 10:15pm)

To all those at UVA who knew my brother: The family has set up a website to collect any and all stories, pictures, and condolences regarding John: We hope to gather as many stories and pictures there as possible so that Emily (John's wife) has them to share with her children when they are older. You can also easily make a donation at the website via debit or credit card to the memorial funds that has been established for John and Emily's young family. Thank you for all your support during this difficult time.

(12/04/09 3:31am)

This is a very tragic story. It's such a tragedy that such an obviously gifted young man should die so young. I can't imagine how his family feels. There are lessons to be learned, however. DO NOT DO ANYTHING RISKY. Is it worth it? I have a two year old daughter, and I don't partake in any activities that could possibly have a deadly consequence. The bend in this he was stuck was only 18" wide and 10" high. I can't imagine how anybody bigger than a small child could fit through such a small hole. I had a friend who loved motorcyles. Well, he died riding his motorcyle on the freeway, leaving a pregnant wife. He was only 28. Sometimes, and I am not judging John Jones, we have to weigh the risks and benefits of our actions.

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