Mood somber, repairs uncertain as Corvette museum reopens

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(CNN) -- At the Church of the Corvette, it's the Day After. The doors of the National Corvette Museum opened as usual Thursday morning, but this day is not going to be typical.

When a historically giant sinkhole suddenly appears inside one of the world's sanctuaries of uber-cool cars as it did Wednesday, it changes the mental landscape a bit.

A 40-foot-wide, 20-to-30-foot deep chasm tends to shake you up, say folks who've seen the hole with their own eyes. No one was hurt, but the mood in the museum is somber. A bit less shaken than they were Wednesday, when the sinkhole swallowed eight priceless Corvettes inside a part of the museum called the Sky Dome.

Nature's disturbance of this holy site started a wave of concern across the Corvette Nation that continued to ripple around the web Thursday.

"Who could fathom such a thing?" asked CNN commenter 440sixpack. "I don't live anywhere near this sort of geological risk, but still I'm tempted to arrange for a sub-surface analysis under my own garage just so I can still sleep good."

'Vette fans have been stepping forward to help. Auto parts store owner Chuck Tamraz told reporters he's volunteering to find any replacement parts to restore the cars.

So, what the hell happened? How could a gaping hole just appear in such a wrong place?

Keep in mind that this is cave country. Western Kentucky is the home of Mammoth Cave National Park, the largest known cave system in the world. Sinkholes pop up constantly in these parts, usually caused by ground water eroding underground limestone over many years, forming a void underneath the surface of the earth. Eventually, the soil that was above the dissolving limestone has nothing to support it anymore, and it collapses.

"Right now, the ground at the museum seems like it's pretty stable," said Western Kentucky University geologist Jason Polk. Experts have assessed and inspected the entire building using ground monitoring equipment. Engineer Matthew Dettman, a 22-year professor at WKU, said sinkholes rarely form in clusters. "The likelihood that another is going to drop out is possible, but unlikely."

"The contractor in charge will certainly want to do some investigation to verify that we don't have any other issues in the building that we know of," Dettman said.

But the cars. Those sweet cars. Oh, the humanity!

Some of them, Dettman said, are buried so deep in the hole that they can't be seen from the surface. "It's fascinating, and sad," he said Thursday morning on the phone. But "the timing could have been a lot worse," Dettman said. Amazing closed circuit security video shows the hole opening up early Wednesday morning before the museum was scheduled to open. "There are times where there are so many people in that room, you can't even move around."

The whole experience was surreal," said Polk, who spent most of Wednesday at the sinkhole. "It was definitely lucky for the people -- not so much for the Corvettes." Polk added that he's a 'Vette fan, but he drives a Toyota.

For right now, Dettman says the risk is extremely minimal. The Sky Dome has been closed to the public, while visitors will be able to tour the rest of the facility. Another stroke of luck: the dome's round shape makes it less likely to collapse on itself, Dettman said. But about 10% of the concrete footing supporting the structure's signature red spire, which shoots high over the museum, has been "undermined" somewhat. "We do have to shore it up even though part of it is bearing on bedrock," he explained.

If it can be saved at all, the Sky Dome has a long road ahead. "At the very least, it's going to take months to fix this," Dettman said. Before they can begin thinking about saving the dome, the museum will "have to take some of that structure out to remove the cars and get equipment in there."

Timing may have been good for the Sky Dome, but it was bad on another level. The sinkhole comes as the museum prepares to celebrate its 20th anniversary this August. Big doings are in the works, including the grand opening of a new nearby MotorSports Park, where sinkholes were found and dealt with during construction.

"Sinkholes are so common here that I would have been shocked if they hadn't found any," Dettman said.

How do you fix a sinkhole? You can fill it in with dirt or other types of material. Or sometimes, it's impossible to fix, and the location has to be abandoned. It depends on the situation, said Polk. Discussions about how to proceed with the museum sinkhole are expected to continue Thursday, and there's no firm plan yet. No one really knows how long it will be before we know if the Sky Dome will survive this attack by Mother Nature.

Hopefully, said Polk, "the sooner the better."