Objective After 9/11/2001, some Fire Department of New York (FDNY) workers had excessive lung function decline. We hypothesized that early serum matrix metalloproteinases (MMP) expression predicts World Trade Center-Lung Injury (WTC-LI) years later. Methods This is a nested case-control analysis of never-smoking male firefighters with normal pre-exposure Forced Expiratory Volume in one second (FEV1) who had serum drawn up to 155 days post 9/11/2001. Serum MMP-1, 2,3,7,8, 9, 12 and 13 were measured. Cases of WTC-LI (N = 70) were defined as having an FEV1 one standard deviation below the mean (FEV1≤77%) at subspecialty pulmonary evaluation (SPE) which was performed 32 months (IQR 21–53) post-9/11. Controls (N = 123) were randomly selected. We modeled MMP's ability as a predictor of cases status with logistic regression adjusted for time to blood draw, exposure intensity, weight gain and pre-9/11 FEV1. Results Each log-increase in MMP-3 and MMP-12 showed reduced odds of developing WTC-LI by 73% and 54% respectively. MMP-3 and MMP-12 consistently clustered together in cases, controls, and the cohort. Increasing time to blood draw significantly and independently increased the risk of WTC-LI. Conclusions Elevated serum levels of MMP-3 and MMP-12 reduce the risk of developing WTC-LI. At any level of MMP-3 or 12, increased time to blood draw is associated with a diminished protective effect.