Exploring Caving Accidents, Deaths, and Rescues in the United States

Shutterstock_83655898Entering the cave. Photo: Rechitan Soran/Shutterstock

Not long before Thanksgiving in 2009, 26-year-old University of Virginia medical student John Jones, his wife Emily, and their 13-month-old daughter flew home to Utah. Emily was pregnant, and the couple had plans to share that news with friends and family over the holiday. On Tuesday, November 24, John took off with a crew of 10 other people to navigate the recesses of Nutty Putty Cave, about 80 miles south of Salt Lake City. The group had received permission to enter the cave from Timpanogos Grotto, a local chapter of the National Speleological Society that weighed applications based on experience. Nutty Putty is a beginner’s cave, but there are narrow, dangerous sections where people have required rescue in the past.

Jones got stuck in one such section, an 18-by-10-inch, L-shaped bend roughly 150 feet below the surface known as “Bob’s Push.” The 6-foot, 190-pound Jones was pinched between rocks with his head below his feet. Search and Rescue personnel arrived and went to work. The team was able to raise the caver from his initial position using ropes, but an anchor in the cave ceiling broke, causing Jones to slip back into place. More than 100 rescue workers arrived over a roughly 28-hour period to help. As time wore on, Jones got on a radio and told his family jokes while they waited above, even though the upside down position made it very difficult for him to breathe and caused circulation problems. After roughly a day of being trapped, he lost consciousness. Hours later, on Wednesday night, he died.

The incident had at least two major effects in the world of caving. The first was local. Officials closed Nutty Putty Cave to future expeditions. The second began at the University of Virginia Medical School. Doctors looking for numbers on caving deaths and accidents found little in the way of scientific studies, so they decided to write their own paper. “That had us all thinking about caving safety,” says study co-author Dr. Nathan Charlton. “There is very little hard data out there regarding the epidemiology of injuries and fatalities in caves. We thought it would be important information for our area as there are a lot of caves in the region.”

Charlton and colleagues gathered the National Speleological Society’s annual American Caving Accidents publications from 1980 to 2008 and started going through them. The numbers were not definitive, as the organization relies on rescue groups, law enforcement, and local grottoes to file volunteer reports. The numbers did represent the best dataset available, and Charlton and his team analyzed them. The resulting study, “The Epidemiology of Caving Accidents in the United States,” was published in the September issue of Wilderness and Environmental Medicine. It is the most comprehensive look at caving deaths, injuries, and rescues to date. Here is what Fletcher and his colleagues found, by the numbers.

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