‘He told my son, ‘I can’t swim with you”: Widow recalls horror of husband’s sudden death from 9/11 illness

LONG ISLAND -- Judi Simmons was composed at the First Responders Memorial in Nesconset, showing us the statue her family donated in honor of her late husband Marty.

Then, we asked her about the circumstances of the firefighter’s death.

“It was our first day of family vacation,” Simmons told PIX11, as her voice filled with emotion.

“We were out boating. He went swimming with one son and he told my son, as soon as he got in the water, ‘I can’t swim with you. I’m having trouble breathing.’”

This was in July 2008, nearly seven years after firefighter Marty Simmons made an off-duty decision to race to the World Trade Center, arriving just as the second tower collapsed after the terror attacks.

The Simmonses and their three young sons had decided to vacation in Tahoe, Cali.

Judi Simmons and her three sons, all of whom are firefighters like their father who died suddenly from a 9/11-related illness years after he responded to Ground Zero.

“We were out west in Tahoe,” Judi said, “where there’s high altitude and low oxygen.”

After Marty developed breathing trouble, he managed to swim to land.

“And then he turned to us shortly after and said, ‘I can’t breathe,'” Judi recalled.

Marty Simmons died of respiratory failure in front of his sons and wife at the age of 41.

Simmons is one of thousands of first responders who became sick in the years after Sept. 11, 2001. Judi Simmons said her husband hid the extent of his breathing difficulties from her and the FDNY because he wanted to stay on as an active firefighter.

“He was using an inhaler and not disclosing it to the fire department,” Simmons told PIX11. “I found his medical records after he passed away. He used to keep them at the firehouse.”

Marty Simmons worked at Ladder 111/Engine 214 in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn.

Judi Simmons said by 2005, four years after 9/11, Marty had significant health problems.

“His lung function started plummeting,” Judi Simmons said. “He always had a constant cough and he got bronchitis five times a year.”

Her husband was enrolled in the World Trade Center Health Program at Mount Sinai Hospital, where Dr. Michael Crane, the director, told PIX11 his team now sees 1,200 patients a month.

Nearly 70,000 first responders from around the country have registered with the program, but Crane said there are many more who haven’t.

Another 20,000 9/11 survivors who lived or worked or went to school near Ground Zero are registered in a health program at Bellevue Medical Center.

Former FDNY Lt. Michael O’Connell, who was forced to retire at the age of 33 when he was diagnosed with sarcoidosis, a serious auto-immune disorder, said he wants to stay around long enough to see his three children grow up, finish college and marry.

“When it presented itself,” O’Connell said of the sarcoidosis, “my body kind of ballooned up to twice the size that it was. They couldn’t even see my lungs because the lymph nodes were so swollen.”

Crane said post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a huge problem for many responders, calling it the “devil on earth.”

Daisy Bonilla, a former school safety officer sent to Ground Zero the day after the disaster, still has nightmares of the horrors she saw.

“I always have an image I see: a hand, a bloody hand,” Bonilla said. “At the pit, that’s the first thing I saw.”

“I can’t sleep at night, I wake up a lot during the middle of the night."

Firefighter Marty Simmons is survived by three sons who are now grown: Joe, 23, is in middle of photo; Kevin, 20, is on the right and Ryan, 18, at left.

At least 60 types of cancer have been associated with exposure to World Trade Center toxins and an autopsy showed Marty Simmons might have been diagnosed with it, as well, had he lived.

“They can say with 99 percent certainty he was in the early stages of lymphoma,” Judi Simmons said.

Over the summer, a startling statistic emerged that nearly 10,000 people have developed cancer who were near the toxic site on Sept. 11, 2001 or in the months that followed.

“The jet fuel on fire gives you all kinds of products, including benzene, which is known to be carcinogenic,” Crane said. “This is not unexpected when you have an ingestion of toxins.”

Plastics, computer parts, burning windows and pulverized concrete combined to make a dangerous brew that thousands inhaled.

“What we’re seeing 17 years later is an increase in fatalities and people getting these illnesses,” said first responder John Feal, founder of the FealGood Foundation, “and the 9/11 community is shrinking.”

Feal, who lost half of his foot when a steel beam fell on him after the disaster, used some of the money he received from the September 11th Victims Compensation Fund to build a First Responders Park and Memorial Wall, not far from where he lives in Nesconset and close to the Simmons' family home in Smithtown.

Feal recently appointed Judi Simmons the president of the park. The memorial wall has more than 1,000 names of first responders. More than 160 others will be added this week.

“To have his name on the wall is a way of honoring him. That’s so special to me and my children,” Simmons said, holding back tears. “I want to make sure that this park always stays beautiful.”