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Kevin Bonham / Forum Communications Co., Published June 19 2010

Man killed in Mentor tornado protected daughter first

MENTOR, Minn. – Wes Michaels sacrificed his own life to save his daughter Heidi from the tornado that destroyed the Cenex gas station/

convenience store late Thursday afternoon.

Heidi Michaels, 25, who teaches at Climax Public School, was helping out at the store to give her father a day off on his 58th birthday, when the tornado hit this lakeside community of 150 about 50 miles east of Grand Forks.

But Wes Michaels didn’t stay away. After hearing tornado warnings just before 6:30 p.m., he stopped at the store to alert Heidi and any customers about the storm potential.

Shortly after arriving, he went outside, spotted the tornado and ran back in to tell them to take cover in a walk-in cooler, according to his son-in-law, Josh Bolstad, who lives in nearby Fertile.

“Wes saw the tornado and told them to start running to the cooler. They only had seconds,” he said. “They were either in a cooler or freezer or close proximity. I can’t say for sure.”

As customers took cover, Wes Michaels laid down on top of his daughter.

“He covered her and saved her life,” said Bolstad, who is married to Heidi’s sister, Kari.

Heidi received relatively minor injuries, including bruising. She was transported to RiverView Health in Crookston, where she spent Thursday night. She was expected to be released Friday afternoon.

“She’s real stiff and sore,” Bolstad said.

Another victim, Patricia Wilber of Grand Forks, remained in serious condition Friday afternoon in Altru Hospital, Grand Forks.

The Polk County Sheriff’s Department said a fourth person sustained minor injuries but was not treated.

The deadly tornado cut a narrow path through the region, toppling campers, boats and docks at Polk County Park on Maple Lake and other nearby lakes. But it left the Mentor Dairy Queen next door and Harlan’s Boats R-Us just across the street virtually untouched.

“I sealed up the main door,” Harlan Kirkeide said of the large bay door on his business. “I saw the tornado come up to the Dairy Queen, only 25 yards away. I don’t know why I stayed here. I guess I had nowhere to go.”

From the window of his business, he watched as the tornado ripped through some trees to the south of the Dairy Queen and

C-Store; it swallowed a small shed on the Dairy Queen property.

“Then, four cars were 20, 25 feet in the air over at the C-Store,” he said. “Then, the whole thing just exploded. Then, it was over. It took about 10 seconds.

“It sounded like four freight trains, like a jet engine. My ears were popping,” he said. “One of the big doors was sucked in. The whole thing was like a big vacuum.”

Moments after the funnel moved northeast out of town, he and others rushed to the C-Store to see what they could do to help victims trapped inside.

When he finally had a chance to check his own business for damage, he discovered that a 500-pound boat lift had been moved about 30 feet toward the C-Store. But he found very little damage.

“It’s just hard to believe,” he said.


Kevin Bonham is a reporter at the Grand Forks Herald