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Five years after tragedy, Nutty Putty Cave remains sealed

SALT LAKE CITY — Michael Leavitt is certain that those who were there at the Nutty Putty Cave site five years ago will never forget the effort to save John Edward Jones.

“We did our best out there to do a rescue, recovery, to get the death pronounced before Thanksgiving Day,” he said, noting that rescuers rushed an EKG down into the cave to confirm Jones’ death before midnight turned the clock to Thanksgiving. “We hustled so it wouldn’t be a Thanksgiving memory for the family every year,” said Leavitt, a member of the Nutty Putty Cave Management team.

And then another decision about the cave was made.

“It is not open and it will never be open again,” Leavitt said.

The once-popular recreation site was closed to serve as Jones’ final resting place after the 26-year-old died after being trapped inside for 27 hours. Leavitt, who was the cave's access manager, was there for the rescue that ended just moments before midnight.

It remains both difficult and sentimental for Leavitt, who sent in his son, then 15, to the narrow passageway with the EKG, because the teenager’s size and the exhaustion of the other rescuers made him the best option. A friend ultimately took the device from Leavitt’s son to confirm Jones’ death.

“It left an indelible imprint on all of our souls, I know that,” Leavitt said. “It was very tough. And for it not to be a safe rescue … We didn’t mind working. We worked and worked and worked, but we never thought that he was going to die. It was devastating to all of us.”

For Leavitt and the surrounding community, the cave itself was another loss. Leavitt has spent 29 years as a Boy Scout leader, and the cave was a favorite place of the young men ages 14 to 18.

“It was a perfect cave for beginner cavers, recreational cavers and Boy Scout groups,” he said. “We wanted them to go in so they could learn to cave responsibly and learn to cave in a safe environment.”

Inside the cave, the young men learned confidence, team-building and how to work and struggle together. First closed in September 2007, Leavitt was among those who worked to see the cave reopened in March 2009.

It was only reopened under a management plan with the Timpanogos Grotto that required the entrance to the cave to be controlled by a gate and a reservation system. He said Timpanogos Grotto has continued its work as one of three grottos committed to preserving Utah’s caves and educating the public about cave safety and conservation.

But none are as well-suited to new cavers as was Nutty Putty Cave, which, at its heyday, was visited by anywhere from 5,000 and 25,000 people each year.

“We do not have another cave like Nutty Putty Cave,” Leavitt said. “We lost a natural formation and, really, it is sad. … It’s a huge loss.”

But there is another point of view. Utah County Sheriff's Sgt. Spencer Cannon said that the closure of the cave eliminated calls to their office from those needing to be rescued from the area. It was a place search and rescue had responded to before, once just a month apart.

"There’s a sense of relief that we won’t have to worry about something like that happening there again, but there were a lot of people who had a lot of enjoyment in that cave," Cannon said.

There were many who decried the closure of the cave after Jones' death and others who questioned why it hadn't been closed sooner. Regardless, Cannon said that Jones' death made closing the cave the only logical option.

"You would hate to take action on everything because if you cause it to cease existing so you’d never have a problem, we would make everyone stop driving, stop drinking and stop flying," he said, adding that there was a lot of discussion among law enforcement, cave enthusiasts and Utah's School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration about the decision.

He, too, noted that he will never forget what happened at the cave. He had been in law enforcement 19 years at the time and had never before seen a situation where someone was alive and uninjured when help arrived and they still ultimately died.

"That’s the hardest thing to look at on that one — was having someone who was completely alive and vibrant and then was at the opposite end of the spectrum at the end," Cannon said. "I don’t think any one will every forget. … When people ask me what are among the most memorable (incidents), that’s among the top of the most difficult."

Email: emorgan@deseretnews.com, Twitter: DNewsCrimeTeam