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’03 nightclub fire: Charity’s effects mixed

– Months after they were sentenced for a 2003 fire at their Rhode Island nightclub that killed 100 people, Jeffrey and Michael Derderian set up a charity to help educate the dozens of children who lost one or both parents in the blaze.

They held fundraisers for the Station Education Fund and persuaded several colleges to promise scholarships. Today, more than five years after it was established, the fund boasts on its website that it has secured $12.8 million in pledged scholarships and programs for 76 children.

As the 10th anniversary of the tragedy approaches on Feb. 20, an Associated Press review of the charity’s accomplishments finds the reality is more modest.

The maximum potential value of the scholarships is closer to $4.5 million, according to a college president who helped line up the pledges, and that assumes the unlikely scenario that all 76 children will go on to four years of college.

Also, only three students have attended college with tuition help from the program since it started in 2007, with scholarships so far valued at just under $70,000. And one of those students withdrew after less than a semester, saying she couldn’t afford to continue.

A separate program run by the charity, paid for by fundraisers organized by the Derderians, has given out nearly $18,000 to the children for miscellaneous items such as textbooks, school clothes and computers, according to figures provided by the fund and papers filed with the state.

The Derderians declined requests for interviews and referred questions to Jody King, a friend who founded the fund with them and whose brother was killed in the fire. King says that he considers the charity a success and that they’ve tried their hardest.

“We helped one child, we did our job,” King says. “I think we’ve done a really good job.”

Among the possible reasons given for the small number of children who have received scholarships: Many of the children – perhaps dozens – are not yet college age. (Four were not even born when the fire happened and are now 9 years old.) Some children never even graduated from high school and chose not to go to college. And many families bitterly swore they’d never take a dime from the Derderian brothers.

But many families contacted by the AP said they had never heard of the fund and wished they had known about it so they could have taken advantage of it. Others complained it can be hard to contact. People who tried in recent months found the phone number disconnected and said emails went unanswered.

The brothers were owners of The Station nightclub in West Warwick, R.I., when pyrotechnics set off by the heavy metal band Great White ignited flammable foam installed inside the club as soundproofing. The Derderians pleaded no contest to 100 counts of involuntary manslaughter in 2006. Jeffrey was sentenced to community service, and Michael served less than three years of a four-year prison term.

Some of the victims’ families praised the brothers. Others were skeptical they would be able to raise enough money to make a difference to children growing up without their parents. The three recipients of scholarships so far include a student at Roger Williams University, who has received $30,000. That could grow to $60,000 if the student completes a degree in two years, a university spokesman says. Johnson & Wales says it has given $32,500 in scholarships to one student.

New England Tech awarded a $2,300 scholarship to Savannah Pimentel in January 2012, but she dropped out the same semester. Pimentel’s father, Carlos Pimentel Sr., died in the fire, leaving a wife and four children. Savannah, now 25, is the oldest.

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