This is Part 1 of the Nutty Putty rescue. Read Part 2 here.
Crawling on her belly, Susie Motola inched her way through a cramped limestone tunnel that wound through the earth like the path of a worm. The search-and-rescue team volunteer sweated in 70-degree heat and stifling humidity, her clothes covered in soft brown clay. This unmapped passage of Utah County’s Nutty Putty Cave was no wider than the opening of a washing machine, and Susie had ropes tied around her ankles so other rescuers could pull her out if she got stuck.
Twenty minutes passed before the beam of her headlamp fell upon a pair of navy-and-black running shoes sticking out of a narrow crevice at the tunnel’s end.
“Hi, John, my name is Susie. How’s it going?”
The reply seemed to come from the other end of a long hallway.
“Hi, Susie, thanks for coming, but I really, really want to get out,” said 26-year-old John Jones.
He was trapped nearly upside down, his 6-foot, 200-pound body seemingly swallowed by the rock.
Above John, Susie ‘s slight, 5-foot-3-inch frame was also encased. She couldn’t fully extend her arms and legs, but she was confident.
Among the smallest of the dedicated band of search-and-rescue volunteers in rugged Utah County, Susie couldn’t carry the biggest packs and she got cold faster. But she was a caver. A good one. She knew Nutty Putty, and she could go where others couldn’t.
Susie had been moving into a new house, but dropped everything when her rescue pager went off just after 9 p.m. She drove her Toyota 4Runner, purchased with an eye toward rescues, around the southern end of Utah Lake and down the long, dark dirt road leading to the cave.
Susie met two other rescuers and descended into the cave through a rocky hole on top of a large hill in the west desert. They traversed its chambers for about 30 minutes before reaching the 135-foot tunnel where John was stuck.
Susie went in first and reached John at 12:30 a.m. He had been stuck for more than three hours, one arm bent underneath his chest, the other forced backward. His calves were free but useless.
“Oh, no worries, John,” she told him. “You’re going to be out of here lickety split.”
But as she tied a webbed rope into a Lover’s Knot around his ankles, she realized bringing John out of the cave was going to be like swimming backward against a very strong current.
The cave tightens its grip
Caver Dale Green discovered Nutty Putty in 1960 and named it after the clay he found in much of its 1,400 feet of chutes and tunnels. Hot rising water formed the ancient fissure, and the still-humid air is slowly but constantly degrading the rock.
Thousands of people have explored the cave, which was once so popular that line formed at its entrance.
John went into the cave on Nov. 24, 2009 with 10 other friends and family members on an excursion organized by his brother, Josh. It was their first time in Nutty Putty and a throwback to childhood family caving outings. John hadn’t gone into a cave in years when the two brothers met for Thanksgiving at their parents’ Stansbury Park home.
John was by then attending medical school in Virginia, where he lived with his wife, Emily, and 1-year-old daughter, Lizzie. Their second child was due in June.
The group entered the cave around 8 p.m. and explored a large chamber called the Big Slide before John and Josh broke off with two friends to find a challenge: a tight but navigable passage called the Birth Canal. They split up, wriggling into alcoves and passages to look for it.
John picked a waist-high hole to explore. He wore a rainbow-colored, 1970s-style caving headlamp his father had bought for the family trips of his childhood. John went in headfirst, pushing himself along with his hips, his stomach, his fingers. Other cavers exploring this hole had found that only the nimblest of contortionists could navigate its tight corkscrew of rock.
John found no place big enough to turn his body around and leave the tunnel.
So he kept going , likely thinking he was in the Canal. When he saw a fissure that dropped nearly straight down in front of him, it may have appeared to widen out at the bottom, giving him a spot to turn around.
Rescuers believe John sucked in his chest to investigate the fissure, sliding his torso over a lip of rock and down into the 10-inch-wide side of the crevice. But when his chest expanded again, he was stuck. Struggling to free himself only made John slide deeper into the narrower, 8 1/2-inch-wide side of the fissure.
One arm was pinned underneath him , the other forced backward by an outcropping of rock. The rainbow headlamp bounced off.
Instead of widening so John could get out, the crack narrowed and all but closed.
‘Guide us as we work through this’
When 23-year-old Josh learned his brother was stuck, he thought it was the beginning of another family adventure story. Their father had once gotten briefly stuck between two rocks when they were children. Leon Jones worked his way out, but the story entered the pantheon of family lore.
But as Josh wound through the tunnel, crab-crawling feet first between the cramped, muddy walls, he felt a creeping apprehension. When he reached the corkscrew, he got stuck himself. By then he could see his brother, and dread settled in.
“Seeing his feet and seeing how swallowed he was by the rock, that’s when I knew it was serious.” Josh said. “It was really serious.”
The two devoutly Mormon brothers prayed together.
”Guide us as we work through this,” Josh prayed, and worked his way free.
He wrapped his feet around John’s calves and pulled.
John’s body inched up, but he had nothing to hold onto and slipped back into the crevice as soon as Josh released him.
It was all backward for Josh.
Caving made him feel like an explorer finding something truly new in alien depths. Now he felt powerless and overwhelmed. His older brother was helpless in a dark hole.
“I had to get out,” said Josh.
He knew they needed search and rescue teams. Now.
Josh crawled back up to the surface and called 911 while a friend went into the tunnel to stay with John.
Knowing help was on the way steeled Josh for another trip down the tunnel to take the friend’s place. The brothers made small talk to take their minds out of the cave.
They talked about Josh’s girlfriend, whether he should follow John into medical school.
They sang the hymn “How Firm a Foundation.”
“Fear not, I am with thee, O be not dismayed, For I am thy God and will still give thee aid; I’ll strengthen and help thee, and cause thee to stand Upheld by My righteous, omnipotent hand.”
“I’m so sorry. Father, just get me out of here. Save me for my wife and kids,” John said.
After nearly an hour, Josh heard rescuers were at the cave’s entrance and went to find them.
“I didn’t want to leave him,” he said. “His life was in that cave, in that little crack.”
John told his brother it was OK to leave.
“Go get ’em, brother,” John said.
‘The entire system starts to fail’
The human body is designed to walk upright, and the heart works with the force of gravity — not against it. When rescuers told trauma physician Doug Murdock that John was nearly upside down, he knew the trapped man didn’t have much time.
“Being upside down, your body has to pump the blood out of the brain all the time,” he said. “Your body isn’t set up to do that ... The entire system starts to fail.”
Murdock headed for the scene, knowing blood and fluids would be pooling in John’s brain and lungs. His circulation would be slowing, capillaries leaking, toxins building up in his blood. If the rescuers were to free John, those toxins could rush to his heart and kill him.
There are very few studies about the long-term effects of being upside down, but Murdock thought John might have eight to 10 hours to live.
Susie knew what it was like to be alone in the darkness at Nutty Putty Cave. She’d been stuck once, when she curled into a ball to turn around and found herself unable to move her legs. She couldn’t hear her group. She started to panic, then told herself to breathe.
Millimeter by millimeter, she pushed her legs out behind her until she was free.
But those moments were why she became a caver.
“I used to be so afraid of tight, enclosed spaces and the dark,” she said. “What do I do? I make it one of my passions and my loves.”
Inside the tunnel, Susie tried every thing she could think of to free John.
She helped string a rope from John back to the rest of the team in an open pit at the tunnel’s entrance. The team pulled, but didn’t have enough power to move John: The friction of the rope rubbing stone was too strong. Susie helped him shift positions, but she couldn’t lift him.
She stretched a water bottle down to his right arm, the one forced backward, so he could tip the bottle forward. The water flowed down his arm, and Susie hoped some of it might reach his mouth.
She cut off his jeans to try to free up a few inches. She joked that she would have a story to tell his wife and asked if he’d like to get some pancakes when they got him out.
When she ran out of things to say, she started humming an LDS hymn, “High on the Mountain Top.”
John asked if that meant she was Mormon.
She said yes, but she had fallen away from church teachings somewhat in recent years. John asked if her faith was strong — whether she planned to be married in a temple.
“He was 100 percent right on there with his religion. I wasn’t,” she said. “It was kind of like a big brother, saying ‘Come on now, shipshape.’”
John’s faith would connect him with many of the rescuers who crawled through the dark to reach him.
But as he talked, his voice grew more nasal, his breathing labored. She could hear that his lungs were filling with fluid.
Time slips by strangely underground, and Susie had only a vague notion of its passing.
Only her headlamp lighted the cave’s absolute darkness; the only sounds were those the rescuers made.
After about two hours, Susie had tried everything she knew and crawled out for rest while another rescuer took her place.
In the meantime, the team worked to solve the friction problem by rigging a pulley system anchored to the tunnel’s walls with a series of climbing cams — anchors designed to fit quickly and tightly into rock.
They had to push the cams through a thick layer of powdery calcite that coated the cave walls, then string the rope through the attached pulley. After each new cam, they’d try the system again. If the friction was still too great, they’d add another pulley.
It was all painfully slow.
Each trip into the tunnel to pass a piece of gear took nearly an hour.
As the hours passed, rescuers arrived from all over Utah. The Utah County Sheriff’s Office set up a command center and rescue leaders ran through idea after idea.
Was there a back entrance to the tunnel? No, it ended shortly after the crack where John was stuck.
What about the rescuers who’d worked on the Crandall Canyon explosion that trapped six miners in 2006?
They didn’t have much advice.
Rescuers ordered 6 gallons of vegetable oil to help slide John out. They even considered explosives. But they quickly determined neither would work.
Drills and chisels continued to arrive throughout the day, but the larger equipment was too big to position near John. The smaller equipment was too slow: When they tried to widen the rocky corkscrew to prepare for John’s exit, it took an hour and a half to drill through just 6 inches of rock.
‘We’ll get him out for you’
John’s wife spent the night of Nov. 24 waiting by the phone expecting news that John was free.
Emily had always known her husband of 3 1/2 years to be persistent and patient.
She knew she loved John as a 20-year-old Brigham Young University student, but marriage seemed “like a lot of work, and not that much fun,” she said with a smile. Emily wanted to serve a church mission and had been called to Madagascar.
John decided to propose anyway. He filled an area at the top of the Joseph Smith Memorial Building in downtown Salt Lake City with rose petals and shooed out all the other visitors, then played guitar and sang her a song he’d written.
Emily took the ring, then gave it back. He waited two months until she was sure.
They married, and when she became pregnant, it was John’s idea to attend medical school at the University of Virginia so she could be close to her family.
When morning came on Nov. 25, 2009, Emily couldn’t wait any more. She took Lizzie and drove to the cave with John’s parents. There she found a hive of more than 100 people talking, planning, and waiting amid ambulances, firetrucks and police SUVs.
“I knew I couldn’t do anything to help, but I really wanted to give him a hug when he got out,” Emily said.
“I just imagined him being really tired and scared.”
A tall, broad-shouldered man in his 50s with buzzed hair and a bristle-brush mustache introduced himself as one of the on-scene commanders.
“We’ll get John out. We’ll get him out for you,” Utah County sheriff’s Lt. Tom Hodgson said. He was tearing up, Emily remembered, which confused her.
But he knew what the cave could do. Hodgson was there six years ago, when a 16-year-old boy got stuck in the same tunnel that trapped John. It took crews 14 hours to free him, and the teen spent three days in a hospital afterward. When a second person got stuck at Nutty Putty less than a week later, state officials closed the cave.
The cave had been open for only six months when John got stuck.
A pulley system freed the 5-foot-7-inch-tall, 140-pound teen in 2004, but John was bigger, farther down the tunnel, and rescuers could only reach about 6 inches of his legs.
Back in the cave, each new pulley helped inch John out of his dark prison.
The team pulled. They pulled again. But John’s feet hit the tunnel’s low ceiling. With his heart struggling to pump blood into his legs, the contact made him scream in pain.
The rescuers came to a horrible realization: The angle of the tunnel meant they couldn’t bend John’s body backward without likely breaking his legs. In his weakened state, the shock could kill him. And the cams anchoring the pulleys were slipping from their uncertain places in the weak calcite.