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Tornado strikes Willmar area Friday

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By Carolyn Lange

West Central Tribune

WILLMAR -- At the end of a dead-end gravel road off of Kandiyohi County Road 19, three little girls, including a 1-year-old named Gracie, huddled together in the basement of a simple one-story home with four comforting adults and two dogs.

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As Whitney Peters, 10, was screaming and "bawling," her friend Kylie Halvorson, 12, said she was trying to "think happy thoughts."

It was difficult to do as glass shattered and walls collapsed around them Friday evening when a tornado ripped through the rural area about two miles east of Willmar.

On the other side of the road, Ken and Joyce Randt were in their old-fashioned fruit cellar with five of their grandchildren, ages 7 to 13. Above them, their 1970s-era home disappeared.

A rock fireplace and a stairway were all that remains of the home, which was surrounded by snapped-off trees, banged up vehicles and debris. A slab of cement is all that remains of a shop.

"Everything goes so fast," said Joyce Randt as she left the remains of her home, where she'd lived for 50 years.

Family and friends were trying to quickly find remnants of belongings as emergency crews gave them a gentle five-minute warning to leave. Because gas leaks were detected at both homes, the area was evacuated.

Vickie Sletta was stunned to the bone with the reality that her home, which had strong family sentiment, had been destroyed in a matter of minutes. A few years back the family's original farmhouse had been destroyed by fire. Losing this house was just too much, she said, as her two dogs crowded around her legs.

As the tornado raged through the house, Sletta had tried to stay as calm as possible for the sake of the three little girls, who were "very frightened."

Afterward, Sletta was the one in tears and Peters and Halvorson were talking a mile a minute, finishing each other's sentences, with adrenaline pumping full force, providing every detail of how they'd been on a shopping trip to Willmar, came back to stay with relatives, heard a storm was coming and they "absolutely hate storms" and went to the basement to watch a video to take their minds off the storm when the electricity went out and they looked out the window and saw the tornado right there and they went into a room without windows and they cuddled together crying and they heard awful noises and saw the wall fall right behind them and it was just terrible.

"Should we be smiling?" asked Peters, as the girls' photo was being taken, not sure that a smile was appropriate for the gravity of the situation. Strengthened by the fact that they had survived the most frightening experience of their lives, it would have been impossible for them not to smile.

About a mile to the west, two turkey barns were lifted off the ground and nowhere to be seen.

It appeared that most of the 6,000 turkeys were OK. About a half-hour after the tornado sucked the barns away, the turkeys were still sitting in the rectangular formation of the barn. On the other side of County Road 19, the roof of another turkey barn was torn off. Two workers there were reportedly injured and taken to Rice Memorial Hospital by ambulance. The hospital reported only one injury related to the tornado, however, and that patient was treated and released.

Ross Orsten, from Orsten Turkey Inc., said he watched the tornado from Lake Florida but didn't know it was so close to his house and barns until he drove home.

As he stood on the edge of the road looking at the destruction, he marveled that no one was seriously injured. He didn't know what he was going to do with the turkeys, which were starting to wander into the adjacent soybean field.

Power lines were downed in several areas along the narrow swath the tornado took down County Road 19.

A formerly lush soybean field had several acres of chewed up black dirt where the tornado had sped across. Pink insulation, boards and metal from turkey barns was strewn across freshly cut hay fields and shoulder-high corn fields.

One Kandiyohi County sheriff's deputy who was stationed at the intersection of County Roads 8 and 19 to divert traffic said he watched debris fall from the sky long after the tornado had disappeared.

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