Stranger who risked life to save JJ's employees after explosion honored for heroic actions

OVERLAND PARK, Kan. - He was the mystery man who put his life on the line to help save others.

On Saturday in Overland Park, Paul Mongiello received recognition for his act of courage last February.

The Kansas City area chapters of the Sons of the American Revolution honored Mongiello with a medal of heroism during their annual George Washington birthday celebration.

Mongiello was in his car next to JJ's restaurant when it exploded into a ball of flames on Feb 13, 2013. Surveillance video showed Mongiello pull over his vehicle, get out, and run toward the burning building.

Mongiello carried JJ's bartender Lindsay Simmons across the street to safety . But then he went back into the dangerous situation to also rescue sous chef Patrick Woodward.

Dewey Fry, chairman of the event, said Mongiello was a no-brainier for the medal of heroism after seeing the 41 Action News story.

But Fry added that the criteria is very specific: a recipient needs to be in imminent danger while saving the life of another person. Several years have passed without someone making the cut, Fry said.

"There's no greater act than to save another's life and to put yours in danger," Fry said. "It is truly a test of a person's character."

When asked if he thought he was in danger, Mongiello said he reacted instinctively and felt he "had a clear path."

"I was there on the corner for a reason and it was just divine intervention," Mongiello said.

Debbie Mongiello, Paul's wife of 35 years, said the act of bravery was not out of character.

She remembers Paul calling her on the phone from the scene to describe the chaotic situation. When he finally arrived home that night, the emotion of the moment hit her. Her husband had burns on his clothes, hair and ears. He was coughing from the smoke inhalation.

"One little thing could've gone wrong and he might not have come home to me that night," Debbie said. "I'm so grateful to God that he was safe and was able to do such a wonderful thing."

Mongiello's story was so powerful, it gained national attention. The story was later featured during a primetime segment on NBC.

When the speaker announced his award, those in attendance gave Mongiello a standing ovation. It was a well-deserved moment for a hero too humble to step into the spotlight after the act of bravery.

"It's going to be a very special day that I never forget," Mongiello said.

Mongiello is being considered for the prestigious Carnegie medal, a national award for those who risk their lives to an "extraordinary degree" to save others.

Ryan Kath can be reached at ryan.kath@kshb.com. You can also follow him on Twitter or connect on Facebook.

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