Rock Center   |  June 07, 2013

Into the Fire: Kansas City gas explosion hero breaks silence

NBC News' Lester Holt reports on the good Samaritan who rescued people trapped in a Kansas City restaurant following a gas explosion. The man being called a hero, Paul Mongiello, recently revealed his identity. Those saved by Mongiello say the tragedy could have been worse if not for him.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> to "rock center." it does seem over these past few months like we have been covering a nonstop string of news events, a lot of them storms and natural disasters but not all. there was a night this past february when we learned there had been a massive explosion and fire in kansas city in a popular restaurant in the downtown section. nbc news crews were dispatched. we heard reports there had been a gas leak , but then something else happened and the story faded from national attention. but there were a lot of questions in kansas city afterward, and there was a local hero who hadn't come forward until now. tonight, lester holt takes us back to kansas city .

>> there was just an explosion.

>> we had an explosion.

>> a gas explosion and the fire is blazing.

>> you are not safe right here! back up, please!

>> reporter: it was an evening kansas city , missouri, will never forget --

>> oh, my god.

>> reporter: flames shot more than 100 feet in the air, a volcano of fire in the very heart of the nation's heartland. you might have heard about the disaster at a popular restaurant with employees trapped inside when it happened back in february, but you likely haven't heard that if it weren't for this mysterious figure, the tragedy would have been even worse . he's seen on this surveillance tape running in to the building. until now, no one knew who he was. his is a remarkable tale of courage. the story begins here in kansas city 's country club plaza . just a short walk away it was happy hour at jjs, a landmark restaurant known for its world class wine list. on the afternoon of february 19th , a crew installing fiber-optic cable had accidentally severed this yellow natural gas line right alongside jj's. at the restaurant, the employees began to notice the strong odor of gas. the kansas city fire department was summoned and reported back to dispatch --

>> we have gas services on their way?

>> yes, they are.

>> because we have a strong gas leak here.

>> reporter: doug dotson was a waiter working at jj's that evening. did anybody begin to discuss that maybe it's not a good idea we're in here during all this?

>> no, we had reassurances that we were okay.

>> reporter: surveillance video showses the fire engine leaving the scene. the reasons why and the exact sequence of events that day are still in dispute. meanwhile, at jj's, the gas smell got worse. the customers went home and the staff started to close up for the night. and then at 6:02 p.m . it happened. something ignited the gas. jj's is at the upper right of your screen. the explosion tore jj's apartment. and within seconds doug dotson was trapped under piles of debris.

>> i thought for sure this is it. i'm going to be stuck here. i'm dead. how do i get out of this?

>> reporter: among those also trapped inside were megan kramer, a server, lindsey simmons and clay samuelson, bartenders, and patrick woodward, a chef. could you hear anything after the explosion?

>> just the screams. i heard lindsey behind the bar screaming for help. i heard megan who was trapped screaming "somebody help me, somebody please help me".

>> reporter: but you couldn't see either?

>> i couldn't see anything. i was underneath everything crawling towards the exit.

>> reporter: as the fire was building, doug clawed his way out, severely injured, nonetheless, he wanted to go back in to help his co-workers who were trapped, but then this man arrived. the surveillance camera caught him running right into the wreckage moments before the entire site exploded into a massive tower of flames. reporter ryan katz of kshb .

>> no one knew who this guy was. who was the good samaritan that put himself in danger to help employees get out of the building?

>> reporter: for months the identity of the good samaritan was a mystery because he left the scene before telling anyone his name. producer melissa greenstein.

>> you couldn't tell if he was a young guy, older gentleman. i just had no idea who this type of person would have been to do something like this.

>> reporter: working with our affiliate kshb , we recently tracked him down to o this quiet suburban street in nearby oberlin park, kansas. his name is paul mongiello, a 58-year-old insurance executive, married, the father of two grown sons. the evening jj's exploded paul was driving by on his way home from work.

>> the vehicle rocked from side to side. initially i thought i was just hit by another vehicle, and then as soon as i literally thought the thought, then i could see the debris and flames and smoke from the explosion.

>> reporter: paul made a panicked phone call to his wife debra.

>> there was an explosion. he was quite frantic. before i could ask a whole lot of questions, he said he had to go. he just said, i got to go, i got to go. and he hung up.

>> reporter: after he got out of the car, he says, his instincts took over.

>> you know when you hear somebody screaming, when you hear a woman screaming, that is -- you know, something that you need to respond to.

>> reporter: just as the fire at jj's was about to flare out of control, paul made his first rescue run .

>> flames were shooting and i saw one gal coming out of the rubble, and i ran over to her. then i carried her across the street, gave her to the people running a local salon/spa to help her.

>> reporter: that first rescue was bartender lindsey simmons. outside paul ran into another bartender who had freed himself from the wreckage, clay samuelson.

>> i said is there anyone else in that building? he said yes. so i said to him, i said, let's go.

>> reporter: paul and clay re-entered the fire to try and rescue sous chef patrick woodward who was also trapped.

>> the fire now was fully engaged. i saw him in the back. he wasn't moving. so i said -- i waded through the debris and said to him, gotta go.

>> reporter: fearful of the flames, paul made a snap decision and just grabbed patrick .

>> what i did was i picked him up out of the debris, put him on my back and dropped him off right at the end of the building.

>> reporter: this is cell phone video of paul and patrick just seconds after getting out of the wreckage. moments later these photos of patrick were taken. he was severely burned and is still recovering from his injuries. attorney grant davis, who represents some of the other victims, says paul mongiello deserves a medal.

>> he's humble about it and acts like anyone would have done it, but that's not true. because there were a lot of people right there that weren't going in there to help.

>> if i did not respond to those screams, that would have been a fate worse than death because i would have heard those screams probably every night for the rest of my life.

>> reporter: what do you say to him?

>> i mean, i do believe that if they didn't find patrick , that he wouldn't be here today. so i mean, it's a huge thank you. he and clay saved a life.

>> reporter: the lone fatality that night was 46-year-old megan kramer, the jj's server whose cries doug dawson had heard but could do nothing about and neither could paul .

>> you go through the -- you know, the sense of guilt that maybe if i hung a minute longer, maybe i could have saw whoever and pulled them out. so that was the only part that really haunted me.

>> reporter: as the investigation into the events leading up to the tragedy continues, lawsuits are flying and fingers are pointing, but paul mongiello is being singled out as a hero. his wife debra is not surprised.

>> i guess hero means different things to different people, maybe hero is somebody who does e right thing when the time arises rather than turning their back. if that's what a hero is, then that's my husband. he's always been that way.

>> no doubt. lester holt reporting for us tonight with special thanks to our nbc station in kansas city kshb .