Passer-by Paul Mongiello saved victims in 2013 JJ’s restaurant inferno

The Star set out to tell the stories of 10 hometown heroes. Here is one of them.

For now, let’s call him “the man in the Lexus.”

He was 58 years old that night in 2013. A father and grandfather. He left the office where he worked as an insurance executive sometime after 5:30 p.m. He could have done so a few minutes earlier. Or later. Or he could have taken another route from the Country Club Plaza to his home in Overland Park.

But he left when he did and made turns where he did and that’s what put him in front of JJ’s restaurant shortly before 6 p.m. on Feb. 19, 2013.

An explosion rocked his car, and flames and screams filled a cold night.

When this man arrived home an hour or so later, his hair was singed and his ears burnt. Parts of his clothes had melted on him. He was covered with ash and blood.

“He wanted a cocktail,” his wife remembered.

She understood why after he told the story.

A couple of weeks after that night, the couple was at a function when a stranger approached and asked: “You were at JJ’s?”

The man told his story again.

“So, you’re the man in the Lexus,” the stranger told him. “Do you have any idea how many people are looking for you?”

Meet Paul Mongiello, the mysterious hero who ran into a blazing fire the night JJ’s restaurant exploded. He ran in not once but twice, each time carrying someone out to safety.

Last year, he was honored by the Pittsburgh-based Carnegie Heroes Fund Commission. Kansas City Fire Chief Paul Berardi suggested Mongiello for inclusion in this section.

More than three years after the explosion, Mongiello is convinced that the time he left work that day and the route he took were not happenstance.

“I think I was put on that corner for a reason,” Mongiello, now 61 and living in suburban Detroit, said recently.

Here’s his story:

When he sat in front of JJ’s at 910 W. 48th St., an overwhelming smell of gas filled the air, even inside his car.

Then came the explosion. The concussion rocked his car, and it’s a big car — a Lexus 460 sedan. Debris showered down. Cars around him took off. Mongiello pulled to the side, got out and looked to the restaurant.

Beams and walls collapsed like thunder. Flames shot high. Screams came from inside.

“It looked a bomb had dropped on the building,” he said.

Mongiello soon was climbing through fire and rubble to get to those screams. He went beneath beams ready to fall. He found a badly injured woman, JJ’s employee Lindsay Simmons, and carried her on to his back across the street, handing her off to others.

“Is anybody else in there?” he asked a man covered with broken glass.

“Yes,” the dazed man answered.

“You have to show me,” Mongiello told him.

The two went back into the hell and found chef Patrick Woodward, practically covered in debris, a look of shock on his face. Mongiello carried him, too, to safety.

It wasn’t until later that Mongiello learned that Megan Cramer, a 46-year-old waitress, had died. He had heard her scream but could not find her.

“That was the tough part for me,” he said.

In an interview with 41 Action News, Simmons said of Mongiello: “For a complete stranger to come running toward 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.”

Mongiello’s children say he’s a hero, too, according to his wife.

“As corny as that sounds,” Deborah Mongiello said.

She’s had plenty of time to think about what could have happened that night. But she always ends up with a lesson she and her husband have tried to instill in their two sons.

“We tried to teach them to do the right thing, even when it’s hard,” she said.

Since the couple has moved to the Detroit area, Paul Mongiello has kept in touch with the two persons he rescued that night.

And he’s never questioned his decision to rush into the building when so many people didn’t.

“If I see something that needs to be done, I’m not the kind to hold back.”

Donald Bradley: 816-234-4182

Related stories from Kansas City Star