After the Heroics at JJ’s, Something Less Than Heroic


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© Jack Cashill
Published in Ingramsonline.com - June 2013

A community drawn together by tragedy has moved on to the recriminations stage.

There are many things Kansas City does well as a community, but one thing we do not do well—no American city does—is investigate a tragedy. There are any number of reasons why, few of them good.

On Monday, Feb. 11, my wife and I took an out-of-town friend, Carlos, to JJ’s Restaurant for dinner. I was feeling generous because the publishers of Ingram’s, Joe and Michelle Sweeney, had given me a JJ’s gift certificate as a Christmas bonus.

Ingram’s has long had a special relationship with the owners and management of JJ’s, a charming and always hospitable place. We have held many a corporate event there.

When I heard of the fire on Feb. 19, not knowing its seriousness, I confess that among my first thoughts was, “Damn, I’m glad I used that gift certificate.” I then e-mailed Carlos a video link to the fire in progress.

“This is so sad,” Carlos e-mailed back, “and I pray everyone got out OK.” Everyone, alas, did not. As we soon learned, Megan Cramer, an employee, died inside the restaurant. More than a dozen others were injured.

Midwestern Values in Action

Some of the stories that came out of the blast speak well of the communal nature of a mid-size Midwestern city. As a case in point, about two weeks after the tragedy, nearly a thousand people showed up for a Friends of JJ’s Benefit Concert at the Uptown.

Thirty-seven local restaurants donated food to the event. Several bands performed without charge. All proceeds went to those injured and/or left jobless. In KC, we have come to expect inspired and unprompted responses like this.

Some responses we do not expect, like that of the “stranger” who chose not to run away from the blast. In time, we learned that his name was Paul Mongiello. Before the blast, Mongiello had no more exciting a Google presence than as an attendee for Specialty Global-Capital at a Professional Liability Underwriting Society meeting. It does not get much drier than that.

We have grown used to seeing seemingly outsized heroes shrink to nothing before a news cycle has spun itself out. In early May, for instance, the media hailed the gregarious Charles Ramsey for helping liberate three women held captive for years in Cleveland, only to learn that he himself had several priors for domestic abuse.

That was not Mongiello. What surprised me in his TV interview was how ordinary and unassuming a business guy he appeared to be. Although he ran much more risk than Ramsey, he took much less credit for it.

As Mongiello approached JJ’s, he saw bartender Lindsay Simmons screaming and shoeless, trying to escape the debris. He calmly put Simmons on his back and carried her to safety. A stationery camera recorded it.

Mongiello promptly returned to the fire. He and bartender Clay Samuelson waded through the burning building and found a shocked sous chef Patrick Woodward waist-deep in debris. “Time to go,” said Mongiello, who then lifted Woodward out and carried him to the sidewalk.

Although few of us would have performed as admirably as Mongiello, most of us would have behaved as unimpressively as those responsible, directly or otherwise, for the blast.

Who can blame them? In a society as litigious as ours, honesty has more potential for blowback than payback. Were the guilty parties to assume responsibility, no one would think to give them credit. Their candor would merely expose their employer to risk and themselves to ridicule.

Post-tragedy, the story has played itself out in headlines. “Family of gas company ‘Snag Man’ relieved after surviving fire,” reads a headline from the day after the blast.

The intrepid Michael Palier worked for Missouri Gas Energy for 28 years, many of them as a “snag man,” the first responder to a gas leak. Although lucky to survive, he suffered injuries to his face, neck, eardrum and jaw. We would hear more of Palier soon enough.

“KCFD releases report on JJ’s Restaurant explosion,” reads another headline. The report itself is as cold and clinical as an autopsy. “Upon entering the restaurant we could smell gas and told management to put out all ignition sources in the kitchen and throughout the establishment,” wrote the report writer. The KCFD then allegedly cleared the scene and left it to MGE to monitor.

“Attorney for JJ’s employees calls KCFD’s report about explosion ‘factually untrue,’ ” reads a subsequent headline. “It is factually incorrect to say anyone in JJ’s was told to turn out the pilot lights,” said attorney Grant Davis. “It just didn’t happen.”

The Harsh Reality

The way the system works, the trial lawyer has even more incentive to find fault than an involved party like the KCFD does to avoid it. As to which party has more claim to the truth, that may come out in the wash, but then again it may not.

“Attorney for JJ’s employees files lawsuit against five companies, one individual,” reads still another headline. Among other things, the lawsuit alleges that Missouri Gas Energy should have evacuated people earlier than it did. Said the spokesman for MGE, “We will not comment on any pending litigation.” What else could he say?

“JJ’s Restaurant sues utilities, Time Warner in deadly Plaza explosion,” reads another depressing headline. And who can blame JJ’s? Someone screwed up, and the restaurant blew up.

The lawsuit, however, names a half-dozen parties: Missouri Gas Energy, MGE’s parent company Southern Union, Time Warner Cable, the contracting company Heartland Midwest, USIC Locating Services and the Rosencrantz and/or Guildenstern of this tragedy, MGE’s unfortunate Michael Palier.

The whole tragedy may turn on the fact that one veteran snag man might have underestimated the risk involved in the gas leak. Were he reckless or negligent, he would have left the scene, but he obviously trusted his own judgment.

In a saner world, the involved parties would come before an impartial arbitration panel and tell their stories truthfully. The panel would then arrange for the culpable parties to compensate JJ’s and make the injured as whole as a fair payout could make them.

Instead, the system will turn men into squirrels, time into money, and make no one whole but the lawyers.


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