NEW YORK — When 60-year-old Paul Johnson, a retired NYPD Emergency Service Unit officer, died over the weekend from 9/11-related pulmonary fibrosis, one of his brother cops didn’t want his death to go unnoticed.
“The man needs a tribute because of his sacrifice,” said Jose Guerra, a retired ESU cop from the Bronx who survived shotgun wounds to the face and leg long before the 9/11 attacks. “He was always in the fight.”
Guerra was so moved by Johnson’s efforts to survive the pulmonary fibrosis, which left him struggling to breathe and using steroids to keep doing so, that Guerra produced a video in Johnson’s honor.
Johnson had shared his fight to stay alive on Facebook with many of his ESU buddies from around the city.
Some of them had retired to the Carolinas, as Johnson did in 2003.
Johnson was diagnosed with his life-threatening illness in 2010.
During a 2015 interview with the Daily News, he pointed out that so many first responders were “dropping dead.”
Johnson, who worked in Brooklyn’s ESU Truck 7, arrived at the World Trade Center site on September 11, 2001, just as the second tower was about to collapse.
He inhaled the highly toxic dust caused by pulverized concrete and other carcinogens during the months he spent at Ground Zero searching for bodies.
“He closed down Ground Zero,” Guerra said of Johnson.
The last beam was removed from the pit on May 30, 2002.
“He was literally the definition of #ESUStrong,” Guerra said. “We’re tight, even in retirement. We always look out for each other.”
One of the many retired cops who settled in North Carolina, Detective Heidi Higgins, had spoken to TV station WECT in 2017 about her own health struggles.
“We’re dying off in record proportions,” Higgins said. “We’re sick, we’re struggling, and people should still know that. Don’t forget about us.”
Guerra is determined to make sure that Paul Johnson is not forgotten.
Johnson was a father of nine children and 19 grandchildren.
He spent the last 15 years of his life in Fort Mill, South Carolina.
That’s where he will be eulogized this coming weekend, and a number of ESU brothers who are retired in nearby cities will travel there to pay tribute.
“He never said he was going to quit,” Guerra said.