Last Corvette pulled from sinkhole

The mangled remains of a powerful Corvette — barely recognizable to its former owner — were pulled from the depths of a sinkhole at a Kentucky museum Wednesday, completing weeks of painstaking work to retrieve eight classic cars that were gobbled up by the gaping hole.

The 2001 Mallett Hammer Z06 Corvette was buried in dirt and rocks, deep beneath the surface of the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green. The mood was somber as the crumpled car, which boasted 700 horsepower thanks to performance enhancements, was pulled to the surface.

“It looks like a piece of tin foil,” said Kevin Helmintoller, of Land O’ Lakes, Fla., who donated the car to the museum last December. “I’m still glad I’m here, because I would have never believed it was this bad. I’m not positive I would have recognized it.”

At around the time it was donated, the car was appraised at $125,000 because of the performance modifications, said museum spokeswoman Katie Frassinelli.

The cars looked like toys piled in a heap amid dirt and concrete fragments after the 40-foot-wide-by-60-foot-deep sinkhole opened beneath a museum display area in mid-February. It happened when the museum was closed, and no one was injured.

The other cars that took the plunge were a 1962 black Corvette, a 1993 ZR-1 Spyder, a 1984 PPG Pace Car, a 1992 White 1 Millionth Corvette, a 2009 white 1.5 Millionth Corvette, a 2009 ZR1 Blue Devil and a 1993 Ruby Red 40th Anniversary Corvette. The eight cars are widely believed to have a total value exceeding $1 million, the museum said.

The museum owned six of the cars, and the other two — the ZR-1 Spyder and ZR1 Blue Devil — were on loan from General Motors.

Sinkholes are common in the Bowling Green area, which is located amid a large region of bedrock known as karst where many of Kentucky’s largest and deepest caves run underground.

With the retrieval now complete, the next task is to assess which cars are repairable.

“They seem to run the gamut — from very minor or superficial damage to catastrophic damage,” said Monte Doran, a spokesman for Chevrolet, which will oversee restoration of the cars in Michigan.

The first car hoisted out in early March — the ZR1 Blue Devil — suffered only minor damage that included cracks on lower door panels, a busted window and a ruptured oil line. Workers got that car running, and cheers went up as the engine revved.

The mood turned more dour as the damage became progressively worse as each car was pulled out.

The white 1.5 Millionth Corvette recovered recently was flattened by the weight of debris. The ZR-1 Spyder and the PPG Pace Car, also among the final cars retrieved, sustained considerable damage as well, Frassinelli said.

All eight cars will be on display at the museum through August.

The decisions about which ones to repair and which are too damaged to fix will be heart-wrenching.

“That’s going to be a fairly difficult discussion,” Doran said.

Whether repair crews can retain the authenticity of each classic car will be a big factor, officials said.

“It would be fairly easy to go find another white 2009 Corvette and take as many parts off that car and put them onto a new structure with the VIN number of this (original) car,” Doran said. “You start splitting the line of — did we restore the 1.5 millionth car or did we build an all-new car.”

Cars considered too badly damaged won’t go on the scrap heap.

“I’m sure that we’ll continue to display them as is. It’s now a part of museum and Corvette history,” Frassinelli said. “It’s interesting to people. They aren’t going into storage somewhere.”

The museum has remained open, except for the area where the sinkhole occurred, and the publicity has led to an attendance boost. Attendance in March was up 56 percent from the same month a year ago, Frassinelli said.

Publicity surrounding the massive sinkhole has led to an attendance boost at the museum, .

Repairs to the museum, which is near the factory where the iconic Corvettes are made, are expected to be completed by early August, ahead of the museum’s late summer Corvette Caravan — a celebration marking the museum’s 20th anniversary. Thousands of Corvette enthusiasts are expected to converge in their models of the classic American sports car.

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