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Smashed cars are all that is left of the Cenex station in Mentor after a tornado ripped through the northwest Minnesota town after 6 p.m. Thursday. Authorities reported one person died in the station and three or four others were injured. Photo Special to the Pioneer/Jon Egelhof

Mentor tornado kills one at Cenex station

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A twister tore through this small town by U.S. Highway 2 and rural areas to the south Thursday afternoon, killing one person and leaving damaged campers, cabins and the mangled remains of a convenience store.

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Authorities confirmed one man was dead and three injured at the gas station, but said there could be more. Two women were taken to RiverView Hospital in Crookston, according to the Polk County Sheriff's Department. A fourth victim was taken to the hospital in a private vehicle.

Domingo Aguilar of Crookston, who was among the first on the scene, said the condition of two of the injured appeared serious. He still had cuts on his hands from digging through the debris with other bystanders.

An hour later, Aguilar was still watching the scene from the road, as firefighters, paramedics and sheriff's deputies went through the rubble.

All that's left of the convenience store is part of the north wall, a sliver of the west wall and a mishmash of 2x4s, corrugated metal and insulation. Four cars were strewn about outside, all crushed or mangled.

The awnings over the gas pumps are full of twisted metal; only the frames of the awnings remain. Two gas pumps below appeared untouched.

A deputy at the destruction said, "It looks like a war zone."

Aguilar, a veteran of the ongoing war in Iraq, had to agree that it resembled what happens when an improvised explosive device goes off.

The size of a house

The sirens went off between 6:15 and 6:20 p.m. while Faye Sorensen was home, a block east of the convenience store.

"I heard the siren and looked out the window one way. And then I looked out the window the other way, and there was the funnel," she said.

Faye and her husband, Terry, who wasn't home, don't have a basement. As she ran across the street to the Fire Hall, "I thought, 'Oh my God, I'm running right into it.' "

"To me, it looked like the size of my house."

The Mentor tornado was one of several that swept through the region Thursday, but it appeared to be the one that did the most damage. Besides the C-Store, it damaged cabins around Maple Lake and campers at the Polk County Campground as it made its way northwest and through Mentor.

Minnesota State Patrol, McIntosh and Erskine fire and rescue units, and First Care ambulance, based in Fosston, reported to the scene. Emergency responders from Fertile, Minn., the Polk County Sheriff's Department and the state Department of Natural Resources also were working at the scene.

Close calls

There were many stories of close calls like Faye Sorensen's.

At the campground, Jim Wenger, a retiree from Crookston and one of the camp hosts, said he stepped out of his trailer to check the weather, saw nothing and went back in. His girlfriend told him she heard tornadoes were coming their way and, sure enough, they heard a sound like "a freight train," the trailer shook, he felt the air pressure increase and then nothing.

Outside, the stairway he had built right next to the trailer was a foot farther away. Next door, his neighbor had also built a stairway, but his trailer was now on its side, 30 feet away.

No one was inside.

Many trailer owners park at the campground for the season and were home during the weekday, which explained why there were so few people around.

"It's pretty quiet here during the week; it was a blessing from above," said camper Lorri Tucker.

"I've never been in a tornado, but what they say about a freight train is true," she said.

Down by the storm shelter under the bath house, built only in 2005, a group of campers had sought shelter, but, according to Wenger, one of them ran back to her tent to grab a sandwich. "Then it hit and she went for a ride in the tent."

The girl was OK, but was taken to the hospital as a precaution with a sore back, he said.

Down by the lakeshore, where he heard some people had left the water just in time, as many as eight pontoon boats were destroyed, swamped or otherwise laying twisted among the snapped tree trunks.

Back at the ruins of the convenience store, the nearby Dairy Queen was undamaged -- other than the broken sign, it appeared untouched -- and the bait shop also escaped damage.

Aguilar said he talked to one of the other business owners who swore that the tornado destroyed the gas station and appeared as if it would hit him, but then evaporated.

Indeed, the tree line on the north side of U.S. Highway 2 only appeared ruffled.

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