Nutty Putty: ‘We’re going to get you out’

Rescuers relied on shared faith, family stories to comfort trapped caver

Editor’s note: This is Part 2 of the Nutty Putty rescue. Read Part 1 here.

Ryan Shurtz usually feels at home underground.

Since he was 4, he has spent most of his free time exploring caves and more than once acted as a trapped victim for Utah Cave Rescue, a group his father helped found. At 6-foot-1 he’s taller than most cavers, yet is whip-thin, flexible and seemingly immune to claustrophobia.

But when he reached the narrow crevice trapping 26-year-old John Jones in Utah County’s Nutty Putty Cave, he had to fight back tears.

The simple geometry looked impossible. The crevice was at the end of a cramped tunnel, and rescuers had realized hours earlier that extracting John’s 6-foot, 200-pound body would likely break his legs.

John had been trapped nearly upside down for 12 hours. With fluids pooling dangerously in his head and lungs, the shock of the injury could kill him.

Ryan steeled himself. As scary and depressing as he felt John’s predicament was, he had a job to do.

Shortly after he arrived, rescue crews got a set of heavy-duty air chisels and drills they would use to rebuild a pulley system designed to pull John out of the fissure.

They initially created the pulley system using climbing cams, but the anchors couldn’t get a strong grip in the layer of powdery calcite that coated the cave’s walls. Ryan would stay with John during the reconstruction effort.

When the new system -- drilled into the rock -- was finished, the team would inch John up. Ryan would then try to shift John from the 8 1/2 inch wide side of the crevice where he was stuck, moving him to the slightly wider side of the fissure.

Next the crew would pull as hard as it could. They had medicine ready to give John intravenously immediately after they freed him.

The plan was, rescuers thought, their last, best hope: John was beginning to lose touch with reality in the darkness.

“Help me get out. I don’t want to be on my head,” John told Ryan when he arrived.

” Why are you on your head?” Ryan asked.

“Why did you guys put me here?” John replied.

‘Just keep fighting!’

When Ryan reached John, he loosened the knots earlier rescuers had tied around his legs.

He brought a water pouch filled with Gatorade and stretched the attached tube down to John so he could drink. He rubbed John’s leg

to remind him he wasn’t in the hole alone.

John, a devout Mormon, had connected with several of the volunteers who had tried to free him through a shared faith. The two talked about their missions for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and spoke Spanish together -- Ryan had served a Spanish-speaking mission in Texas, John in Ecuador.

“I’m sorry I’m so fat,” John said. “It would be so much easier for you guys to get me out of here if I wasn’t so fat.”

Ryan smiled.

“Well, when we get you out of here, I’ll be your workout buddy,” he said.

John oscillated between calm, coherent conversation to helplessly thrashing his legs in sheer panic.

The best way to bring him back from that abyss, Ryan discovered, was to ask about his young family.

John told Ryan about his wife, Emily, about their life together in Virginia, about their 1-year-old daughter, and his child on the way. The baby was due on Ryan’s birthday, June 13.

Rescue commanders on the surface also knew how much thoughts of his family helped John in his dark prison.

Salt Lake County crews brought a telecom, a set of two radios that transmitted by way of a cable line. They strung the line 400 feet from the entrance to John’s tunnel, then gave a speaker to Ryan.

Lying in the dark tunnel, Ryan stretched his long arm out as far as he could with the little black box. Tears streamed down the rescuer ‘s face as Emily shouted to John from the chaotic surface to the musty, cramped tunnel.

“I love you! Just keep fighting!” Emily ’s voice crackled through the box.

John yelled, and Ryan could hear he was crying.

“I love you! I love you! Tell Lizzie I love her! I’ll get out, and I’ll come see you!”

When the pulley system was ?nished, it was 4 p.m. on Nov. 25, and John had been trapped for 19 hours. But rescuers finally had the power to pull him out.

‘I can’t believe I’m upside down’

The rope was strung through nearly 15 tandem pulleys drilled into the wall of the cave. Closest to John, the rope went through a natural arch in the wall just above the crack where he was trapped.

Ryan tried to ready John for what was about to happen.

“OK, John. I need your help, I need you to make sure you are pushing with your hands.

I’m going to push you this way.”

In the pit, eight people worked as one.

And John’s body lifted out of the crevice. With each tug, he moved a little farther. Then his feet hit the low ceiling. He screamed. Ryan yelled for the teams to lower him, to give him a rest.

When they lifted John up for the third time, Ryan stuck his head in the crack to give John his first glimpse of another person in hours.

“John, look up at me,” Ryan said. “How are you doing?”

His face was muddy and his eyes were red from crying. But he wasn’t bleeding, and his eyes were a bright, vibrant brown. He looked fine.

“It sucks; I’m upside down. I can’t believe I’m upside down,” he said. But he smiled. “My legs are killing me.”

They let him back down to rest again.

After about 20 minutes, Ryan raised his voice to yell.

“Haul!” he said. The rope moved. John inched upward.

Ryan began to hope.

Against the sheer impossibility of it all, John might get out.

He would be hurt badly, but he could hug Emily. He could watch his baby��s birth, his daughter grow up. He might live.

Then the world exploded in a blast of pain.

‘I’ve got to get out’

Ryan screamed. He blacked out.

When he came to, blood was everywhere. His jaw felt broken, and his eye was swelling.

Under the pressure of John’s body and the crew’s pulling, the stone arch had shattered and the rope tied around it had broken, sending a heavy metal carabiner straight at Ryan’s face.

But where was John? The trapped man had slid back into the hole and landed on his head again, but didn’t seem worse than before. Ryan tried to speak as reassuringly as he could with a tongue sliced nearly in half.

“John, I’m bleeding, I’ve got to get out, but it’s OK. Everything’s OK. Someone else will come in with you.”

Back at the pit, the eight people pulling the rope crashed to the ground when it went slack.

“It felt like a slap in the face,” said Susie Motola, who had been the first rescuer to reach John but was now working on the haul line.

Ryan’s father, Dave Shurtz, was also working the haul line.

When he saw Ryan’s face covered in blood, he worried his son might have a concussion, a cracked skull, or even have lost an eye. As paramedics assessed the extent of the damage, Ryan told his father it was OK to go back into the tunnel -- someone had to stay with John.

Dave reluctantly crawled in.

“John, are you OK?” Dave asked.

“I’m going to die right here.

I’m not going to come out of here, am I?”

“We’re going to get you out.”

He asked about Ryan again and again.

“Is he OK? I think he’s really hurt bad.”

Then John fell silent, and his breathing slowed.

While he waited for a drill to make a new pulley hole, Dave tried to wrap a rope around John’s waist. He lowered himself into the wider end of the crack, but it was too tight to work the rope all the way around John. He asked John to suck his stomach in, but he didn’t respond. Then it was Dave who was stuck. It took him 15 minutes to crawl out of the crack.

When he got the drill, Dave stood in the crack next to John and pointed up, drilling madly, struggling in the damp, humid conditions. He

tried to put the pulley in and found the hole was too small.

He drilled a second hole and pushed the pulley in. He was exhausted.

Fighting a black depression, he crawled back out of the hole, stopping every few minutes so he wouldn’t vomit.

At the top, Dave pulled Utah County sheriff’s Lt. Tom Hodgson aside.

“He’s dying right now. He has a heartbeat, but he’s had difficulty breathing before I got there. You can’t get someone down there before he dies.”

But Hodgson, one of the onscene commanders, was focused on his earlier promise to the Jones family that rescuers would bring John out of the darkness.

Dave was spent. Instead, Brandon Kowallis, another member of Utah Cave Rescue who’d just arrived at Nutty Putty Cave, crawled into the tunnel to take his place. He brought a telecom so Emily could talk to John. The family had just prayed together, and Emily had new hope.

“I know you’ve been pushing so hard for so long. Why don’t you rest for a minute and take a break, and then you can push again,” she said.

She felt good about that.

She’d given her husband, struggling so hard for her, for his family, against something so impossible, permission to be at peace for a moment. Still, she was absolutely sure he was going to be all right.

Down in the cave, though, John didn’t respond, Kowallis said. He was already unconscious.

He never woke up. At 11:56 p.m. on Nov. 25, a paramedic crawled into the cave and pronounced John dead.

Emily couldn’t understand how they could know John was dead -- they hadn’t found a pulse on his legs for hours.

She was terrified of leaving. What if he’s not dead, and we all leave and he wakes up and no one’s there? Emily thought.

But John hadn’t moved, spoken or breathed for hours.

Kowallis said he had heard John dying.

Emily forced herself to get into a car with John’s family and leave her husband behind.

‘It wasn’t an easy phone call to make’

A soft-spoken man, Hodgson says he doesn’t usually make a promise he can’t keep.

On Nov. 26, he had to break his promise again. He picked up the phone to tell the family his teams wouldn’t be able to get John’s body out of the cave.

“To make that phone call on Thanksgiving morning to a family that is hopeful you will be bringing their son out and they’ll get some closure, it wasn’t an easy phone call to make,” he said.

At first, they reacted with horror. What did they mean, they couldn’t get his body out?

But removing John after his death would be even harder than it was when he was alive. Now, he couldn’t help them. He couldn’t push himself up. He couldn’t twist through a rocky corkscrew that led out of the tunnel.

So they agreed. They couldn’t put the rescuers in any more danger. The cave would be his final resting place. Crews would seal it with concrete at its main entrance, both to give the family peace and to prevent another injury.

Emily would have no cemetery to take her children to.

But the cave would become a special place for her family.

“John loves the outdoors; he loves Utah; he loves wide open space,” said Emily. “It’s so fitting that it’s his spot now.”

Ryan was one of about two dozen rescuers who went to John’s funeral. He approached Emily. In the long hours they’d spent underground, John talked about the baby growing inside her, how he planned to be there for the child’s birth. Ryan said he knew John would still be with her.

Ryan was badly hurt.

Though he’d escaped with cuts and bruises and stitches on his tongue, his upper lip swelled so much that it drooped over his chin.

Thanksgiving dinner was an Ensure shake through a straw.

His physical injuries healed, and he returned to work in human resources at TechMediaNetwork in Ogden. It’s still painful to talk much about John. Had John lived, Ryan thinks they would have been close friends.

Unable to forget

In the weeks after John died, Susie couldn’t forget the time she spent trying to save his life.

She replayed the rescue step by step in her head, trying to find something crews could have done differently.

She read a friend’s blog about finding a blessing in terrible things. But she couldn’t imagine anything good coming from John’s death. A man had died alone, in a dark hole.

She wasn’t the only one.

Just six volunteers had been able to crawl throught he tunnel to reach John, out of a total of 137 rescuers who responded. Moving on wasn’t easy.

They’d been through rescues where, despite all efforts, the victim died. But they were still able to retrieve a body for loved ones.

They were so close to John, but everything they tried had failed. And the team had grown close to both the trapped man and his family.

“We were rushing against the clock, and we were actually talking with him,” said state Sen. John Valentine, a search-and-rescue volunteer

who said it was the toughest rescue he has seen since he joined the team in 1980. “This one is very tender still. It’s an open wound.”

Susie didn’t go to the traumatic stress debriefing for the search-and-rescue teams -- she had to get back to her job at an Orem nursery. She missed the Jones family telling the rescuers they didn’t blame them for John’s death.

“They showed such care and concern for John, like he was their own family,” said John’s fat her, Leon Jones.

“They risked their own lives. It wasn’t just a job.”

So instead, John’s younger brother, Josh Jones, called her. He asked a lot of questions. And Susie poured her heart out. The cave rescue was supposed to be something she could do. She’d had her chance to show she could serve as well as anyone, that she could help someone. But it didn’t seem to have mattered.

John was dead.

Josh listened. He carried his own load. Thet rip, after all, had been his idea. He wanted to find a tight passage.

He’d crawled through the tunnel and seen John swallowed by the rock.

They worked through their grief together, building a healing friendship. They’re both irrepressible outdoors lovers, and now Susie gets an invitation when Josh gathers a group to go camping, mountain biking or kayaking.

For Emily, the peace she found after saying that final prayer with John’s family never left her.

Before John died, she’d heard about people who felt closer to God after a tragedy and wondered if their faith was truly stronger or if it was all they had left.

Now she knows.

“It’s not that I believe because it’s the only thing that gets me through. It’s just that I know,” Emily said. “I just know that he’s still watching out for us, that our family is still a family.”

After his death, she went home to Salem, Va. She lives with her parents now and is applying to graduate schools.

On June 15, their baby was born.

She named him John.