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Bus tragedy hits home in DL -- DL residents lose 9-year-old niece, granddaughter

DETROIT LAKES -- The tragedy of four young lives ended and more children injured Tuesday in a school bus crash near Cottonwood, has touched the hearts of many throughout the nation, and broken the hearts of family members and friends.

Terri and Dave Hutchinson of Detroit Lakes, the aunt and uncle of Emilee Olson, one of the fatal victims of the crash, said support and condolences have been pouring in, in both the DL area and the rural Cottonwood home of Terri's sister Traci and her husband, Charlie Olson.

Three of the Olson children were on the bus that was hit on Tuesday. Six-year-old Rilee was sitting at the front of the bus, while his older brother, 11-year-old Sidnee, was sitting across the aisle from nine-year-old Emilee.

After the crash, Sidnee was able to get to Rilee at the front of the bus, and the driver, Dennis Devereaux, helped the two from the bus and had to keep the two boys from returning to the bus to find their sister.

Dave said the Olson's other daughter, 14-year-old Bailee, and father Charlie, were on another bus headed for basketball at the time of Tuesday's crash.

Rilee was a bit stiff and sore, but is doing fine, his uncle said. Sidnee was released from the hospital and returned home Wednesday night with his parents, after doctors had worked on his broken hand and treated an eye injury with some stitches.

"And Emilee, you know, is gone," Dave said.

The family is close. Terri and Traci's parents, Dale and Dorothy Poffenberger, also live in Detroit Lakes. Dave said family holidays are usually spent in the area, and Traci and Charlie bring their family to the area quite often to visit.

Dave and Terri said the children were especially close. The Hutchinson children include Betsy, a freshman at the College of St. Benedict, Robin, a high school junior, eighth-grade son Rick, and the baby in the family, sixth-grader Trisa.

"There's 22 on our side who come to Detroit Lakes for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and usually Easter," Terri said, "Twelve cousins that have such a great time playing together."

"She was quite a kid," Dave said of his niece. "She was smart as a whip and you couldn't get anything past Emilee, because she was smarter than you were. I used to tease her all the time and in the end she was always ahead of me, be teasing me back and get the upper hand. She was good."

Terri Hutchinson remembers the trip to China with her sister in September of 1999, when Traci and Charlie decided to adopt, to pick up her niece. (The Olsons also later adopted their son Rilee from China.)

The sisters went to the designated meeting place and saw all the children from the orphanage dressed in matching sleepers, with little ponytails on the tops of their heads.

"The strongest baby of the whole bunch was this little girl who looked up at Traci and crawled over to her and it happened to be Emilee. And Traci picked her up and their eyes met and Traci burst into tears and felt it was meant to be from that moment on," she said.

Terri said Emilee became the quintessential "girly-girl" who liked having her hair and nails done. She was talented, playing music on the piano after hearing others play, and she sang at her church.

"She has been such a joy to everybody. In fact, Traci just discovered the video camera in her bedroom upstairs and on Monday she had made an entire tape--she always wanted to be a star--and she's singing songs from High School Musical and showing everybody where her dresser and her bed is. She liked to be the star," Terri said, her voice breaking with emotion.

"She had such a great smile, she could light up a room."

Terri is at the Olson family farm near Cottonwood, where the small community is very tightly knit. Many people know the family; Traci is a physical education teacher at the Lakeview School in Cottonwood and Charlie is a bus driver and local farmer.

"There are so many families grieving here. If people could just keep everybody in their thoughts and prayers--this is going to be a long road for not only the next few days, but for weeks, months and years to come," Terri said.