STAUNTON • John Hibbeler’s collection of classic Corvettes and car memorabilia — a hobby more than four decades in the making – went up in flames inside two garages near his Staunton home.
“This was my whole life,” Hibbeler, 65, said Friday, choking back tears. “It took me 45 years to get to this position, and I lost it all in one night.”
A small brush fire that got out of control may be to blame for the two-alarm fire that destroyed Hibbeler’s two garages and an outbuilding late Thursday night in Staunton, the town’s fire chief says. It’s an accidental fire, not suspicious, the chief added.
Hibbeler was asleep in bed after 11 p.m. Thursday when he heard someone banging on his door, warning him of the approaching flames. He scrambled outside and saw his life’s passion ablaze in the garages behind his home at Madison and Second streets.
No one was injured in the fire, but a firefighter suffered a serious ankle injury getting to the scene. Staunton is about 40 miles northeast of St. Louis in Macoupin County, Ill.
The garages housed his collection of restored Corvettes, a Sportster Harley Davidson motorcycle, three waverunners, other vehicles and trailers, car magazines dating to 1959 and every license plate Hibbeler has had since he started driving.
Three of the cars were Hibbeler’s own Corvettes, including his pride and joy — a 1966 Corvette he bought in the spring of 1968 from a used car lot in Alton. He restored the car about eight years ago and since the car only had about 2,500 miles on it.
“It was everything to me,” Hibbeler said. ”When I didn’t have anything, I had it.”
Hibbeler said he never married and has no children. He recently retired as manager of an auto parts department in Collinsville.
Hibbeler has insurance but said there is no way it can truly replace what he lost. One Corvette collector says a car like Hibbeler’s ’66 Corvette could easily fetch $50,000, at a minimum.
Rick Haase, fire chief of the Staunton Fire Protection District, said about 40 firefighters from his and four neighboring departments helped fight the fire. They had to truck in tankers of water from elsewhere to extinguish the blaze, which broke out at Madison and 2nd streets.
Firefighters first got the call for a brush fire. They arrived quickly and found flames shooting through the roofs of the garages and outbuilding. The fire destroyed the buildings. Crews stayed on the scene for several hours to continue pouring water onto hotspots, and the fire rekindled at about 5 a.m., Haase said.
One firefighter from the Staunton department suffered an ankle injury, Haase said. Haase said the buildings contained various chemicals used in restoring vehicles. Those vehicles, along with the shop tools and equipment used in restoring cars, were destroyed by the fire, the chief said.
Haase said: “We have not determined the exact cause of the initial brush fire. We do not feel the cause was suspicious.”
Part of the exterior on Hibbeler’s home and a neighbor’s home melted from the heat, but flames never reached the homes. The brush fire apparently started behind the garages on his property. The closest garage is about 20 feet from his home, he said.
Corvette enthusiasts are a tight-knit group, and word spread quickly Friday morning about Hibbeler’s losses.
“It’s just a shame,” said Dick Ferrando, who runs D A Restoration in Gillespie about seven miles from Staunton. He heard about the Corvettes shop fire while he was in a coffee shop Friday morning.
“I’ve known the guy most of 40 years,” Ferrando said. He was trying to send a mutual friend to Staunton to check on Hibbeler.
Ferrando is familiar with John Hibbeler’s collection, including the ’66 coupe. “That was his favorite car,” he said. “Those cars all are conditioned and original. Originality is everything. If they’re anything at all, they’re $50,000 period, on the low end.”
Ferrando said news that a Corvette restoration garage had burned to the ground spread across the country among Corvette owners.
“I’ve had about 10 calls this morning — from Minnesota, Chicago – making sure we didn’t burned down because they have cars here we’re restoring for them,” Ferrando said.
Hibbeler said he didn’t want to speculate about how the brush fire began. “It was strictly a fluke, stupid accident that shouldn’t have happened,” he added.
Kenneth Hibbeler, John’s brother, agreed that the cars meant everything to his brother: ”Car shows, amateur racing. He works on Corvettes for other people,” Kenneth said.
John Hibbeler said he knew when he was in fifth grade that he would one day own a Corvette. He was riding his bike that day and saw a white 1954 Corvette. He stopped to take a look. “I said, ‘One of these days, I’m going to have one.’”
Friends and neighbors came to offer support Friday, but John Hibbeler admitted he was in a state of shock as he talked to a reporter.
“I’ve lost everything I’ve been proud of,” he said. “There’s nothing anybody can do.”
Kim Bell covers breaking news for STLtoday.com and the St. Louis Post-Disaptch.
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