Stranger whose heroic actions helped save JJ's employees from fiery explosion shares story
2:09 PM, May 9, 2013
11:41 AM, May 10, 2013
KANSAS CITY, Mo. - First, there was silence. Then, the sound of a woman's screams snapped Paul Mongiello into action.
What followed was a series of heroic actions that helped two employees from JJ's Restaurant escape the fiery natural gas explosion on February 19. For the first time, Mongiello is sharing his story after 41 Action News identified him from exclusive surveillance video that captured the rescue.
Mongiello left his insurance job on the Country Club Plaza close to 6 p.m. and began his normal trek home to Johnson County that night.
As he reached the top of the hill at 47th and Belleview Avenue, Mongiello noticed an overwhelming odor.
"If you smelled gas like that in your home, you would evacuate your family and open all the windows and get out," Mongiello told 41 Action News.
He continued down the road and stopped in traffic at the stoplight next to JJ's Restaurant.
A surveillance camera captured the moment seen by millions of people around the world: the enormous natural gas explosion inside the restaurant.
The concussion rocked Mongiello's car from side to side. At first, he thought he'd been hit by another car. But then he saw flames and debris shooting over his car and realized there had been an explosion.
As other drivers frantically tried to speed away, Mongiello pulled his car over and got out to see what had happened. He saw workers standing outside the restaurant and for a split second, wondered if it had been a controlled blast.
"I obviously just witnessed some devastation and was looking for some logic as to what had happened," Mongiello said. "When I heard the screams, that's when I engaged."
The screams came from bartender Lindsay Simmons. As Mongiello approached JJ's Restaurant, he saw Simmons, who was missing a shoe, trying to walk out of the debris and broken glass.
"She was totally traumatized and hysterical," Mongiello said.
In the video obtained by 41 Action News, Mongiello is seen carrying Simmons on his back across the street to safety.
But his act of courage didn't stop there. After leaving Simmons in the care of workers at a salon, Mongiello ran back to JJ's as it quickly filled with flames.
That's where he found bartender Clay Samuelson.
"I asked him if there was anybody else in the building and he said, ‘Yes.' So that's when I said, ‘Let's go,'" Mongiello said.
The two men stepped through the burning building and spotted sous chef Patrick Woodward waist-deep in debris. Woodward had a look of complete shock on his face.
"I waded through the debris over to him and said, ‘Time to go.' Then, I lifted him out and carried him to the sidewalk," Mongiello said.
Woodward was in extreme pain from burns. Some of his skin rubbed off onto Mongiello's jacket during the rescue.
Once the fire department and other first responders arrived, Mongiello stayed at the scene for about an hour to provide his witness statement to law enforcement.
Later at home, he watched hours of news coverage. He remembers feeling guilty when he learned investigators had recovered Megan Cramer's body at the site.
"You go through a range of emotions," Mongiello said. "Could I have kicked a piece of dry wall off? Moved a beam? Done a little more searching?"
Almost three months after the explosion, Mongiello has accepted that he did all he could do on that February night. It is a moment he believes he was chosen for.
"It was providence," he said. "It was really an honor for me to be in that situation and to be able to help."
Since the blast, JJ's staff members have invited Mongiello to gatherings so they could personally thank him for his courage.
"The gratitude I feel towards Paul is hard for me to put into words," Simmons told 41 Action News. "For a complete stranger to come running towards such a dangerous, horrific scene was remarkable. He did what no one else had the courage to do. Paul is the true definition of a hero."