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On Feb. 12 eight Chevrolet Corvettes at the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Ky., were swallowed up by a sinkhole. So far five of the cars have been painstakingly extricated. (NATIONAL CORVETTE MUSEUM/NYT)
On Feb. 12 eight Chevrolet Corvettes at the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Ky., were swallowed up by a sinkhole. So far five of the cars have been painstakingly extricated. (NATIONAL CORVETTE MUSEUM/NYT)

Recovered ‘Vettes

From sinkhole to stardom Add to ...

Corvettes are built to go fast and stop fast, but they were never designed to free fall 40 or 50 feet (12 to 15 metres). Yet that is what happened to eight of the Chevrolet sports cars in the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Ky., when a sinkhole opened in the facility’s Skydome area in the predawn hours of Feb. 12.

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The sight of museum-quality Corvettes plummeting through the floor, recorded by security cameras, drew extensive coverage on the evening news and the Internet, making it the most widely discussed recent event in the world of collector cars.

“It’s a sad story, but it is a remarkable occurrence,” said McKeel Hagerty, chief executive of Hagerty Insurance in Traverse City, Mich., which specializes in vintage vehicles. “It’s an insurance guy’s nightmare – kind of a cruel joke.”

The recovery process, using a crane to do the lifting, began early this month, with five cars removed so far. Three remain buried.

The most difficult to extract, so far, was the PPG pace car, according to G. Michael Murphy, chief executive of Scott, Murphy & Daniel, a Bowling Green construction company. “The pace car was upside down and embedded, and had a 20-foot concrete slab fall vertically on the underside of the car,” he said.

Murphy is supervising a team of about a dozen people extricating the cars.

Each of the cars presented a different challenge, given their positions in the earth. “Some were sitting upright, one was sitting on its tail, one was sideways in the dirt and another one was upside down,” Murphy said.

While the collapse was newsworthy for having happened inside a museum, sinkholes are not unusual in Kentucky. “We have a karst topography,” Murphy said, referring to the voids formed when underground rock formations are dissolved and washed away by flowing water. “It’s just a way of life, dealing with underground caves and sinkholes in this area.”

But how does something like this happen with a commercial structure that is only 20 years old? Murphy explained that in the past, in most construction surveying, crews would bore down to bedrock and then stop drilling. But in a karst area, there may be an open space under several feet of solid rock. In this case, there was a void under a bridge layer of bedrock, and when it collapsed, the floor caved in and took the cars with it.

The hole is now about 40 feet deep.

“I think that the dirt surrounding the remaining cars is sitting on the cave floor,” he said. “I’m not concerned about the dirt falling in any further.”

Murphy said it would probably be another three to five weeks before the remaining cars are removed, in part because of the need to stabilize the sides of the hole. The team plans to use a vacuum system to remove the soil from around the cars.

The experience has been a bit surreal for the staff, many of whom have been at the museum, a non-profit founded and operated by enthusiasts, for its entire 20-year existence.

Betty Hardison, the archivist, was the first on the scene, arriving after the security company called to say that the burglar alarm was going off. “I didn’t think much of it, because sometimes the wind can blow against the doors and trigger the alarm,” she said.

What she found was hard for her to describe. “I saw what I thought was smoke and I could smell oil and gas,” Hardison said. “I walked in and looked behind the spire and saw that there were cars missing. I moved a little bit closer and noticed a big hole in the floor.

“I was in the state of shock,” she said. “I was here when the museum was first built, and seeing that really broke my heart.”

The museum’s executive director, Wendell Strode, said it was unlikely this would happen again on another part of the grounds. Just the same, the rest of the museum space will be tested using a microgravity machine, which can detect voids under the floors.

Strode said the damage to the structure would be covered by the museum’s insurance. The damaged cars will be shipped to Detroit and repaired under the direction of General Motors’ design staff.

Will the sinkhole incident have an adverse effect on people donating or lending cars to the museum in the future?

“We don’t think so,” Strode said. “We’ve had numerous individuals who have e-mailed or called us and offered their own similar cars to go on display. We’ve had offers for a 40th Anniversary Corvette and another 1962.”

Strode said that clubs for BMW and Jaguar have offered to help. “Automotive enthusiasts worldwide have reached out to us,” he said. “It’s not the best way to get more publicity but it’s been great.”

“We can’t change what happened,” the museum’s communications director, Katie Frassinelli, said. “It wasn’t something we could have ever anticipated. There are now millions of people worldwide that now know there is a National Corvette Museum.”

Hagerty, the insurance executive, also sees a brighter side. He noted that the incident could do a lot to bring positive recognition.

“Fortunately no one was hurt, and any car can be fixed,” Hagerty said. “And once the building is stabilized and the cars are restored, it will put them onto a path of success that is more assured.”

As for the cars themselves, their fate has not been completely determined. At first, the plan was for each to be brought back to its pre-sinkhole condition.

But the five cars that have been fished out have been on display at the museum, becoming quite a tourist attraction in their own right.

“The initial thought was: Restore them all,” Edward T. Welburn Jr., GM’s vice president for global design, said. “But now there has been so much interest that the current thinking is to not restore them, at least right away.”

Until the cars are brought to Detroit, it is impossible to estimate how much the repairs would cost, Welburn said.

“A lot of those cars should be left the way they are,” said Kevin Mackay, a Corvette restorer in Valley Stream, N.Y. “They’re part of history. In some ways that would even be more of a tourist attraction.”

Welburn emphasized that the fate of the cars should be decided by the museum. “It’s their museum, and they have a significant role in making that decision.”

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