The twister descended quickly on the Ouachita Mountains town shortly after 8 p.m. Thursday after a series of sirens warned residents of tornadoes in the area.
Polk County Sheriff Mike Oglesby said the sky turned green before the twister sliced through Mena.
Rick Lanman, who manages the Mena Airport, said darkness fell quickly as the tornado crossed the Oklahoma border 10 miles away.
"Me and the dog ran to the bathroom when we saw it on the TV," Lanman said. "It was here in less than a minute."
Mena sirens sounded for earlier storms north and south of town. When they sounded a fourth time, "experience was telling me that we were in trouble," said Lanman, who said he been through tornadoes before in Oklahoma and Illinois.
Before first light Friday, a convoy of trucks from electric utilities streamed into Mena, which has 5,700 residents. Their flashing yellow lights illuminated downed trees and buildings whose roofs and sides had been ripped away. Blue lights from police cruisers lit up debris downtown.
"It just looks like a war zone," Mayor George McKee said.
Prosecutor Tim Williamson said the storm uprooted 100-year-old trees and damaged Civil War-era homes that had been restored. He said the town once looked "pastoral" but added, "It's not anymore."
Emergency workers began going door-to-door at first light Friday morning. Authorities said they wanted to check on residents as a precaution, although they had no specific reports of people missing. They said they would likely need help getting around fallen trees.
"It's going to be a long day," Oglesby told Little Rock television station KTHV.
Williamson said dispatchers at the county courthouse had been trapped inside immediately after the storm. He said the county jail was "uninhabitable" and efforts were being made to transfer inmates to nearby counties.
The twister tore the roof off a local community college building destroyed two businesses at the city's industrial park, Williamson said.
The violent weather was part of a system that caused damage throughout the South and parts of the Midwest. The National Weather Service said a woman was injured at Shreveport, La., when a tree fell onto her car during a tornado. Twisters also damaged homes east of Vinita and near Muse in Oklahoma and at Crossett in far southern Arkansas, near the Louisiana line.
As the storms moved east, hail and high winds were reported in Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi and Tennessee. Power was out in many parts of the region.
Authorities have not released the identities of those killed in Mena, a man and two women. One victim was found in a collapsed house, one in a Masonic lodge, and another in her front yard, Reeves said.
The injured were being treated at Mena Medical Center.
National Guard troops were patrolling the downtown area, and an overnight curfew was in effect as emergency crews dealt with ruptured gas lines, downed power lines, fallen trees and heavily damaged buildings.
Lanman, the airport manager, said his dog Milo was agitated when he arrived home from work Thursday, and that he kept a close eye on the weather as the storms crossed into western Arkansas from Oklahoma.
"We had one warning for a storm to the north of us and a warning for a storm to the south. We were on the very tip. We were at the right spot, I turned on the TV and, sure enough, there it was," Lanman said.
A state trooper in Mena called for assistance after his patrol car got stuck in the storm, pelted with debris and covered with power lines, state police spokesman Bill Sadler said.
"I'm in the middle of a tornado," Sadler said the trooper reported.
The sheriff said deputies reached five children who were in a house that was "basically turned upside down." They were taken to a hospital, he said.
Reeves said he had never seen such a powerful storm hit the tornado-prone region.
"Not in my lifetime," he said. "The last tornado we had to hit the city of Mena was in November 1993. This time we had significant structures (hit)."
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