MENA, Ark. (AP) - The sirens sounded at least four times as the storms drew in, at every corner of the western Arkansas hamlet and in the center of town.
While many took cover immediately Thursday night in the basement of the county courthouse, several funnel clouds passed over the city of 5,700 in the Ouachita Mountains. Other stayed home, only to glance out their windows just in time to see the black funnel descend on the community just east of the Oklahoma line.
"This one popped out of nowhere," said Polk County Sheriff Mike Oglesby.
The tornado killed at least three people and injured at least 30 others while winding its way through the town. As daylight broke Friday, pink insulation hung like cherry blossoms from the sheered branches of century-old maples. The roof of a two-story home sat atop the rubble that once was the floors beneath it, a set of women's clothes still hanging from a suspended closet rack.
Oglesby said search-and-rescue teams had combed through the city's downtown and a neighborhood just west that sustained the brunt of the storm without finding any other victims. The sheriff said he had no reports of anyone else missing.
"Right now, everything's good," Oglesby said.
Basic tornado safety rules call for people, when warned, to go to the lowest floor in a building and put as many walls as possible between themselves and outside.
A warning was posted at 7:24 p.m. Thursday night for areas north of Mena and another one went up for the community at 8:01 p.m. - nine minutes before it hit. Some communities cannot run their sirens continuously because their motors will burn up, said John Robinson, a National Weather Service forecaster.
"Everything was well-covered. We said everything was heading straight toward Mena. It's unfortunate yet," Robinson said from Mena, where initial storm surveys Friday showed the storm was "at least an EF3" on a scale of tornado damage, with winds at least 136-165 mph.
Some residents sought shelter in the Polk County Courthouse, where dispatchers became trapped immediately after the storm. A radio antenna fell over onto part of the courthouse during the storm, damaging its roof, but the beige brick structure appeared to withstand the twister.
But others, like Ken Butler, 40, said they initially dismissed the sirens. Butler could only huddle against a wall as the storm hit, his arms wrapped around an exposed gas pipe.
"The siren was going off in plenty of time, I just didn't take it serious enough," Butler said.
The storm plucked his neighbor's shotgun-style home off its foundation and tossed it about 20 feet away. Across the street, neighbor Edward Cross, 69, said he and his wife Nettie, 66, also didn't heed the sirens. Instead, he lifted the blinds of his back windows to look out toward the town's middle school and the courthouse.
At that point, Cross said the "big black cloud" loomed right in front of him.
"I didn't have time to go nowhere, I just grabbed a hold of the wall and held on," Cross said. The storm tore away a quarter of their home's roof.
His wife, smoking a cigarette, held up her hands to show how rattled she remained.
"I'm still shaking," she said.
Across town, the twice-monthly meeting of the Mena's chapter of the Order of the Eastern Star had been going on uninterrupted, the 19 people inside only faintly hearing the sirens through the building's cinderblock walls, said attendee Thurman Allen.
"We heard the siren two or three times. It would sound off and it would quit," said Allen, 79. "We were getting ready to get out of the building when it hit."
The storm tore down the Masonic hall's walls, collapsing the roof on one woman, killing her, Allen said. Allen was hit with debris and thrown to the floor. The wind bowled over his wife and others inside.
"We had several ladies who it took the shoes right off their feet," said Fred Key, 37.
A few streets over, Marion Boyt, 76, received a warning telephone call from a friend at the courthouse just before his son and daughter-in-law bounded up his home's porch. The three cowered inside a coat closet, squeezed into a space only five feet wide.
"I guess we got skinny because we were so scared," Boyt said.
The tornado lodged a piece of splintered wood two feet into his home and knocked a maple tree onto his roof. His metal shed in the back yard ended up at his neighbor's, the windows of his car blown out.
Others killed in the Mena storm were found in damaged houses, said Polk County Coroner Richard W. Myhand.
Gov. Mike Beebe, who toured the city Friday afternoon, said one of the people injured was in critical condition. The state has contacted the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Beebe said he expected to speak with President Barack Obama about the tornado in the coming hours.
Initial estimates show more than 600 homes were damaged in the storms Thursday night, Beebe said.
"It's much bigger than some people reported," Beebe said, later promising victims that "we'll get through it."
Rick Lanman, the manager of the city's airport, said the sky darkened quickly after sirens had gone on and off three times previously.
"Experience was telling me that we were in trouble," said Lanman, who said he had been through tornadoes previously in Oklahoma and Illinois. "I turned on the TV and, sure enough, there it was."
The storm destroyed a plant that makes gaskets for air conditioners and an ice manufacturer. Small business owners swept up glass from their sidewalks in the downtown in a city known for its remodeled homes from the 1800s and century-old trees, said Prosecutor Tim Williamson.
The town once looked "pastoral," Williamson said, but added, "It's not anymore."
Still, those in Mena planned for the future Friday. Against her better judgment, Danielle Moore, 16, gingerly stepped back into her parent's home, looking anxiously up at the second floor that probably will cave in soon.
She emerged with her light pink, strapless prom dress, which made it through the storm undamaged. Her junior prom, scheduled for Friday night, remains indefinitely postponed.
"I had to go get it," Moore said.
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