BOWLING GREEN, Ky. - A gaping sinkhole collapsed part of the National Corvette Museum in Kentucky on Wednesday, damaging eight prized cars that plunged in a heap while the attraction geared to the classic American sports car was closed to visitors.
"They're all just kind of nose down in the bottom of the hole," said Western Kentucky University engineering professor Matt Dettman, part of a team brought in to assess the damage and the stability of the surrounding area.
Six of the cars were owned by the museum and two - a 1993 ZR-1 Spyder and a 2009 ZR1 Blue Devil - were on loan from General Motors, said museum spokeswoman Katie Frassinelli.
The other cars damaged were a 1962 black Corvette, a 1984 PPG Pace Car, a 1992 White 1 Millionth Corvette, a 1993 Ruby Red 40th Anniversary Corvette, a 2001 Mallett Hammer Z06 Corvette and a 2009 white 1.5 Millionth Corvette.
Bowling Green city spokeswoman Kim Lancaster said the hole opened up at about 5:40 a.m. CST Wednesday, setting off an alarm and a call to the fire department. Frassinelli said no one was in the museum at the time.
The hole opened in part of the museum's domed section, and that area will remain closed. That's an original part of the facility that was completed in 1994. The fire department estimated the hole to be about 40 feet across and 25 to 30 feet deep.
Pictures of the sinkhole showed a collapsed section of floor with multiple cars visible inside the hole. A few feet away, other Corvettes sit undamaged and undisturbed.
"It's certainly a sad day here," said museum executive director Wendell Strode.
Frassinelli said the rest of the museum was open Wednesday. Visitors trickled into the museum, some unaware that the main exhibit area was closed.
"That's a whole lot of money just to throw down a hole," said Alida Kriete, who stopped with her family on their way back home in Indiana after a vacation to the Gulf Coast.
Dettman estimated it could take weeks to months to repair the damage. The cost could run into hundreds of thousands of dollars, depending on the extent of any structural damage, he said.
Lancaster said information was still being gathered about what exactly happened, but it appeared to be the first problem of its kind at the property.
Bowling Green sits in the midst of the state's largest karst region - the Western Pennyroyal area, where many of Kentucky's longest and deepest caves run underground. A karst display distinctive surface features, including sinkholes.
Sinkholes are common in the area but usually don't occur inside buildings, Dettman said.
"It was unique for a lot of reasons," he said. "One, it's full of Corvettes, and two that it was inside a structure."
Geologists were still trying to determine what caused the sinkhole to open up.
Some of the foundation beneath the dome's main tower had been undermined, Dettman said, but "the primary foundation system around the perimeter of the structure hasn't been undermined."
Strode said at least two of the Corvettes could be "recovered and saved," but museum officials were still trying to determine the extent of the damage. He didn't know how soon the cars could be retrieved.
"We've overcome adversity before and will certainly overcome this," Strode said.
The museum is set to host the 2014 Corvette Caravan in late summer, a celebration marking the museum's 20th anniversary.
"We're hoping to be in full business and going full guns at that time," Strode said.
Museum officials expect car clubs from all 50 states and Canada to converge on Bowling Green for the celebration.
Bowling Green, Ky., is also the lone place where General Motors builds the iconic Corvette.