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Corvette museum reopens after sinkhole swallowed pricey cars

February 13, 2014 -- Updated 1658 GMT (0058 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Museum reopens Thursday, but sinkhole area will be closed off
  • 40-foot wide sinkhole creates "millions" in damages at National Corvette Museum
  • Engineers say Sky Dome suffered no structural damage
  • The cost of the damaged cars is "substantial," a museum director says

(CNN) -- The National Corvette Museum opened its doors again Thursday, a day after a sinkhole opened up inside it and swallowed eight valuable 'vettes.

The vehicles at Bowling Green, Kentucky's National Corvette Museum slid into a 40-foot-wide, 20-foot-deep sinkhole that opened up in the facility's yellow Sky Dome wing. The museum unofficially estimates it caused millions of dollars in damage.

While visitors can come back to the museum Thursday, the Sky Dome area will be blocked off indefinitely.

Motion detectors alerted security that something was amiss shortly after 5:30 a.m. Wednesday, said museum spokeswoman Katie Frassinelli. An employee who first walked into the room "has been in shock all day," she said.

Eight Corvettes fell into a sinkhole that opened up beneath a section of the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Kentucky, on Wednesday, February 12. The sinkhole was about 40 feet wide and 25-30 feet deep. Click through the gallery to see other sinkholes that have been in the news. Eight Corvettes fell into a sinkhole that opened up beneath a section of the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Kentucky, on Wednesday, February 12. The sinkhole was about 40 feet wide and 25-30 feet deep. Click through the gallery to see other sinkholes that have been in the news.
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Photos: When the ground gives way Photos: When the ground gives way
Corvettes swallowed up in sinkhole
Sinkhole swallows eight Corvettes

"When you go in there, it's unreal," said Frassinelli. "The hole is so big, it makes the Corvettes look like little Matchbox cars."

The news triggered a collective worldwide gasp from the Corvette Nation.

"I was shocked," said Frazer Bharucha, 47, a Corvette owner since age 17. "We're talking about iconic cars that have been around for years."

Watch sinkhole devour Corvettes

Using remote-controlled drones, geologists and engineers from nearby Western Kentucky University have already explored the sinkhole and determined that the Sky Dome suffered no structural damage, Frassinelli said. "There's a cave down there," she said, adding that the museum is only a short drive away from Mammoth Cave National Park.

The painful losses have been tallied: Of the eight cars that fell, six were donated to the museum by Corvette enthusiasts, and two are owned by the car's maker, General Motors.

Here's the museum's list of cars that went down the hole:

-- a 1962 "Black Corvette"
-- a 1984 PPG pace car
-- a 2009 ZR1 "Blue Devil"
-- the 1992 white "1 Millionth Corvette"
-- a 1993 ruby red "40th Anniversary Corvette"
-- a 2001 Mallett Hammer Z06 Corvette
-- the 2009 white "1.5 Millionth Corvette"
-- a 1993 ZR-1 Spyder

The total value of the damaged cars is substantial, said museum executive director Wendell Strode. Almost all the cars have been removed from the room. "They've been setting up ramps to get the last one out," said Frassinelli. That remaining Corvette is suspended in a precarious position on a riser directly above the sinkhole.

Bharucha, of the Long Island Corvette Owners Association, knows the museum well, having visited it at least six times. "There's a sense of awe and you get a lump in your throat when you walk inside."

He's right. I've been there. It's hallowed ground. Under the Sky Dome's recognizable red spire and towering vaulted 100-foot high ceiling sits a round chamber that cradled rare vehicles, including Indianapolis 500 and Daytona 500 pace cars. The room feels like a cathedral. And for many enthusiasts, it is kind of the Church of the Corvette. It is home to more than 70 unique Corvettes, including several prototypes and a unique 1983 model -- the only one in existence.

Only 43 1983 Corvettes were manufactured before GM decided to scrap them and move on to the 1984 design. All were destroyed, except the one now housed at the museum. That car will likely go on display elsewhere in the museum, Frassinelli said, but the others from the damaged dome will be placed in storage.

Let's remember the Corvette's rich tradition. This is the ultra-cool car driven by Bill Bixby in the 1970s TV series, "The Magician." It also was the cherry ride that was good enough to be piloted by the dudes with the right stuff: NASA's Apollo astronauts.

"It's the all-American car," Bharucha said. "No matter where you go, people know it and love it. Sometimes they'll stare at it. Other times they'll wave."

You always remember your first car, and Bharucha is no different. For him it was a 1966 yellow Corvette convertible. Guess what? He still has it. "That's my baby," he said. "That's the one car I will not sell."

The sinkhole couldn't have come at a worse time, as the museum prepares to celebrate its 20th annivesary and open a 184-acre Motorsports Park in August. Some 5,000 people are already pre-registered to attend the park's grand opening.

Sinkholes at the Motorsports Park aren't really a concern, Frassinelli said. Several holes were found during construction and were made harmless, she said, but Florida sinkholes are infamous for gobbling up homes in the state.

"We want to move forward as soon as possible," she said. "We want to start repairs and recovery."

Sinkholes: Common, costly and sometimes deadly

CNN's Stephanie Gallman contributed to this report

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