Philadelphia Firefighter Collapses, Dies Following Shift

'BIG STEVE" Cospelich was a tough firefighter who didn't hesitate to break into burning buildings to battle flames and rescue trapped victims. But he could also be seen cuddling a pigeon that couldn't fly or carrying an injured kitten to the SPCA.

Like many big guys, Steve was a softy at heart. But the fact remained that he was a passionately committed city firefighter, one of the most aggressive in the department.

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Lt. Stephen M. Cospelich, a 23-year veteran firefighter and a Navy veteran who served in Vietnam, collapsed and died May 19 while walking his border collie, Bella, near his Chestnut Hill home. He was 56.

The cause of death had not been determined, but Steve had fought two smoky fires that day and his family wondered if that contributed to his death.

"He loved fighting fires," said his wife, the former Nancy Riley. "He loved saving people's lives. But he sometimes had to bring out dead bodies. He was especially upset when children were hurt."

Steve got his nickname because he was 6 feet 5 and weighed 250 pounds.

"He was very strong, very handsome," his wife said. "He was very helpful to people. Anybody whoever needed any help, Steve was there. He never turned anybody down."

Steve was assigned to a number of fire stations during his career. His latest was Ladder 8 at Chelten Avenue and Baynton Street, also the home of Engine 19, but his favorite station was always Ladder 14, at 26th and York streets.

The reason was simple: It is one of the busiest in the city, and Steve wanted to be busy battling smoke and flames -- and saving lives.

He was promoted to lieutenant in 1999 while assigned to Ladder 14. He then went to Ladder 18, Hunting Park and Erie avenues. He arrived at Ladder 8 in 2007.

Steve was born in Philadelphia to Oliver Cospelich and the former Barbara Gilbert. He was a 1970 graduate of Germantown High School.

He enlisted in the Navy in December 1970 at age 17 and had to get permission from his parents. He served until April 1976, including a tour of Vietnam as a medic.

Steve and Nancy met when they were 16. He was going to Germantown High and she was attending the Philadelphia High School for Girls.

Nothing came of that meeting; each married others, but then fate seemed to throw them back together. They discovered that they were living on the same floor in Chestnut Hill Village, Mermaid Lane and Crittenden Street.

One morning, during a severe ice storm in January 1994, Nancy was scraping ice off her windshield about 6:30 and he was scraping his own.

"He came up to me and said I was doing it wrong," she said. They recognized each other, began dating and were married in August 1995.

Steve was a handyman who enjoyed working around the house. He spent summers on Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts, where he liked to fish and swim in the ocean.

He took the pigeon that couldn't fly to the Schuylkill Wildlife Center. He couldn't stand to see animals suffer, a trait shared by his wife. "We became animal- lovers together," she said.

Steve was never seriously hurt fighting fires, but in 1994 he was thrown from a fire truck when the driver made a sharp turn outside the Ladder 14 station.

He hit the pavement and suffered 30 fractures, including his nose. He went through four surgeries to repair the damage and, after being off duty for eight to 10 months, went back to fighting fires with the same gusto.

Besides his wife and parents, he is survived by two daughters, Stephanie and Vanessa Cospelich; a stepdaughter, Nina Smith, and two brothers, Norman and Oliver Cospelich.

Services: Memorial service 11 a.m. Saturday at the Church of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, 324 Carpenter Lane. Interment will be private.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service