Fire investigator Bill Cosgrove sees it all the time: a candle, a flame, and a finger going through it. “People are curious about fire,” he says. “Children are the most curious. You don’t really get burned when you run your finger through a flame, if you go real fast. I don’t do it because I’ve been burned.”

Cosgrove, 56, joined the Chicago Fire Department in 1969 and spent 18 years as a firefighter before becoming an investigator. “Getting burned is probably one of the most severe injuries you can encounter in your life,” he says. “I had my fire clothes on, I was reaching up, I had opened a portion of the ceiling above me, and the roof was burning. The tar on top of the building liquefied from the heat and began to run and flow. It came down in a stream right on top of me and it came up my glove into my sleeve. I bent down to get out of the way and that liquid tar splashed on the back of my neck. The pain is tremendous.”

In 1990 Cosgrove served as technical consultant on the film Backdraft, which was shot in Chicago and provided him with the material for his first book, Robert De Niro and the Fireman. He left the force in 1996 and since then has operated a private investigations company that analyzes and documents the origins of fires for insurance companies and individuals throughout Illinois. A native of Chicago, he grew up around 113th and Western, and now lives in Mokena.

According to Cosgrove, over half of Chicago fires turn out to be arson, and they can be broken down into several categories: “The vanity fire setter wants to set a fire and after the fire department arrives, he runs in and helps people,” he says. “The hate crime is what it sounds like. Someone deliberately destroys another person’s belongings.” Then there are fires set by people to collect insurance or for other financial gain, as well as those that conceal murders or burglaries and vandalistic fires set by “youthful fire setters who burn things for the hell of it.”

Cosgrove’s third book, Accident or Arson?, is a firsthand account of the workings of the CFD’s Office of Fire Investigation. “Arson is the easiest crime to commit, the hardest to detect, and the most difficult to prosecute,” he says. “To prove an arson fire, it’s essential that all accidental and natural causes are eliminated first, then we begin a detail of the circumstances surrounding the fire.” One indicator he uses to determine the point of origin is to examine the lightbulbs left intact, because “a lightbulb tends to swell or goes oblong toward the direction of heat.

“We’re not so dumb,” he continues. “When we walk into a fire room, it looks destroyed, but to me there are signs of where the fire was, how it traveled, where it originated.”

Cosgrove comes from a family of firefighters: his father was one, as are two of his brothers and his son, Timothy, who volunteered for five days at Ground Zero. Firefighters, he says, “have been America’s heroes for 160 years. They’ve been out there in all types of situations. It doesn’t make any difference what the occasion is, firemen respond to all calls.”

The worst fire Cosgrove’s experienced was the 1993 destruction of the Paxton Hotel at 1432 N. LaSalle. The five-alarm fire brought 24 engines, 10 ladder trucks, 5 battalion chiefs, and 13 ambulances to the SRO hotel. When the firefighters arrived, they found people hanging from the windows on the second, third, and fourth floors, but those on the ground floor were trapped by burglar bars. Nineteen people died. “We saved at least 100 people from the Paxton and it was a heroic effort,” he says. “But you never forget the ones you couldn’t save.”

Cosgrove will read from and sign copies of Accident or Arson? at 5 PM on Saturday, February 23, at the Chicago Firehouse Restaurant, 1401 S. Michigan, where he worked for over a decade when the 1905 firehouse was home to the OFI. It’s free; call 773-508-4436 for more information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.