All was quiet at the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, KY in the early hours of February 2014. That changed at 5:39 a.m. when museum employees responded to the burglar alarm. What they found was worse than they could have imagined. Several cars were missing, but they weren’t stolen by a group of thieves. The classic cars had been swallowed by a massive sinkhole.
Within an hour of the incident, Ben Baldock and his team of engineers found themselves staring down at a giant hole in the floor of the museum’s 140-foot-diameter Skydome. Baldock is the civil construction project manager for Scott & Murphy, Inc., a regional contractor that does civil and concrete construction work for commercial, industrial and highway projects. The company’s building division had constructed a 62,000-square-foot expansion to another section of the museum, so Baldock was familiar with the building.
After a few minutes, it was clear that securing the building and recovering the collectable Corvettes would be no easy feat. The sinkhole measured about 60 feet wide and 60 feet deep. It swallowed eight cars with a combined value exceeding $1 million.
Between engineering, planning, organizing the manpower and transporting the heavy equipment, Baldock had his hands full. One good thing was a new addition to Scott & Murphy’s fleet of equipment would make coordinating this job easier. A few days earlier, Baldock had received a new custom trailer from Talbert Manufacturing that he had ordered with a little help from an old friend.
Childhood friends reunited
Seven hours south of Bowling Green in Dothan, AL, Kytes Shockey is a sales associate for Truckworx Kenworth, a Talbert dealer. Growing up in Bowling Green, Shockey and Baldock were childhood friends. They played together, pushing dirt with toy trucks and riding four-wheelers when they got older. They even toured the National Corvette Museum together. But they parted ways when Shockey moved away, staying in touch and hanging out when they could, and attending each others weddings. While they worked in similar industries, they never worked together until late 2013.
Scott & Murphy already owned a Talbert trailer purchased new in 1988. Even after 2 million miles the trailer was performing great, but the company was ready for a new one that could provide the higher capacity and versatility.
“We have a diverse fleet of more than 100 machines ranging from rubber-tire backhoes to 110-ton crawler cranes,” Baldock said. “We wanted a trailer that could haul our large pieces of equipment, but still move our smaller pieces efficiently.”
He knew a Talbert trailer would provide the durability they needed, and he also knew exactly who to call.
“Ben called me up and asked if I could get him a quote on a Talbert trailer,” Shockey said. “I was happy to help him out. We’ve known each other since kindergarten, but this was the first time we’ve been able to work together.”
Shockey had sold several Talbert trailers and was familiar with their quality. “I always recommend Talbert trailers because they’re so well built,” he said. “The quality of steel, the workmanship, the welds – they take pride in their work.”
The friends began discussing options and features that would work best for Scott & Murphy. Baldock chose a multiple kingpin setting that allows the operator to shorten the kingpin-to-rear-axle dimension so the trailer would be compliant with requirements in different states. He also added gooseneck fenders and load-bearing wheel covers to protect the payload from rocks or debris kicked up by truck and trailer tires. Baldock opted for strobe lights with a battery backup that keeps the lights flashing even when the gooseneck is removed.
“Talbert was extremely helpful,” Baldock said. “They worked with us over the phone almost every day for four weeks. The specifications were very detailed and they got it right.”
Shockey agreed. “At one point Ben called with a question. The president of Talbert called him back, and within 20 minutes, we had an answer,” he said. “It’s not often that the president of a company emails or calls you.”
Retrieving the cars
Scott & Murphy ordered a 55-ton tri-axle trailer with a 26-foot long by 9-foot wide deck and pin-on fourth axle. The 26-foot-long deck allows the company to haul as much as three smaller pieces of equipment at a time. The 9-foot-wide deck offers greater stability for wider machines like articulated dump trucks, large excavators and cranes. Talbert manufactured the trailer to the exact specifications in just over a month. And luckily for Scott & Murphy, delivered it just days before the sinkhole collapsed.
With the new Talbert trailer in its fleet, Scott & Murphy was ready to tackle the job. Retrieving classic Corvettes from a massive sinkhole inside a museum would be daunting in the best circumstances, but to add even more stress, the company had to work under the watchful eyes of the national news media.
“There was more media coverage on this than anything we’ve ever done,” Baldock said. “It was very nerve-wracking and made the job more challenging.”
Before thinking about the cars, Baldock and his team had to ensure the sinkhole wouldn’t cause further damage to the building or endanger his crews. They drilled 30 micro piles around the perimeter of the building down to the bedrock to secure the foundation. They also drilled five more micro piles around the foundation of the tall spire in the center of the Skydome to ensure it would stay intact during the recovery process.
Once the foundation was secure, they designed a framework that allowed them to remove a column and make a temporary door so that excavators and even a crane could enter the building.
At last they could start recovering the cars from the sinkhole. Of the eight cars that had fallen in, three were completely buried. The other five were partially visible. Like an archaeologist unearthing treasures, Baldock and his team exercised caution to preserve what integrity the cars had left.
Western Crane Service, Inc. was contracted to assist with the rigging plan, beam design and extraction of the eight Corvettes that were claimed by the sinkhole. By late February 2014, crews were able to safely suspend engineers in a man basket into the middle of the sinkhole area to examine the condition of the hole and finalize the recovery plan.
First, they used a crane to remove the exposed cars. Next, they brought in a large vacuum truck and began the delicate process of vacuuming dirt from around the buried cars to prevent further damage. Once the loose dirt was removed, the team used a long-reach excavator to carefully remove boulders that trapped the cars. Finally, after the debris was cleared, they brought the crane back to pull out each of the buried cars. The new Talbert trailer was instrumental in getting the right machines to the jobsite.
By early March three of the eight Corvettes were retrieved, and by early April the final car was pulled from the sinkhole.
The damaged cars were on display at the museum “as is” before three were taken to a General Motors facility for restoration. A 2009 ZR1 prototype, a white 1992 model that was the millionth Corvette produced, and a 1962 tuxedo black Corvette, which was the oldest car damaged, will return to the museum’s Skydome looking as good as new. The other cars will return to the display, but they will remain in the same condition they were in when they emerged from the sinkhole.
“The Talbert trailer really helped us move all the equipment and coordinate the job,” Baldock said. “It allowed us to quickly mobilize cranes, excavators, long-reach excavators, backhoes and other materials we used to get the cars out.” Not including time spent securing the foundation, the job took 16 weeks to complete.
A lot has changed over the years, but Baldock and Shockey’s friendship is as strong as ever. They plan on keeping it that way by meeting every year at the National Corvette Museum. And they still talk about equipment with the same excitement they used to in the sandbox.
“Ben sent me a picture of a Corvette on the Talbert trailer. It was really neat to see,” Shockey said.
The trailer itself hasn’t seen much rest since Scott & Murphy completed the job at the museum. Baldock says it’s on the road 10 hours a day, sometimes six days a week.
As for the sinkhole, there was a lot of discussion about what to do with it. The incident sparked so much attention that attendance at the National Corvette Museum was up 70 percent. Initially they wanted to keep the sinkhole as an attraction, placing protective glass over it so visitors could walk out and look down into the hole. When that option proved to be too expensive, they decided to fill the hole and restore the floor to its original state. In early November 2014, the museum’s Skydome closed for construction and restoration.
Baldock and his team will be there to finish the job they started. They’ll bring their cranes, excavators and dump trucks back to the museum, all on the decks of their Talbert trailers.