Paper fell in a strange blizzard from a darkening sky Sept. 11 as Terry Hatton led the men from Rescue Co. 1 into the World Trade Center's north tower.

"Brother, I'm afraid this day we may die," he told a friend as they entered.

An hour later, the order came to evacuate the teetering building, but Timothy Higgins and the men from Squad 252 kept heading up the stairs. They said they were on their way to help Hatton.

"We'll meet you," Higgins shouted over his shoulder through the din to another firefighter they passed. .

The two decorated fire captains had learned their dangerous business together as young men in the same elite Brooklyn rescue company.

"We were all guys with 100-percent attitude, all aggressive," said Richard Evers, a retired member of Rescue Co. 2 who in the early 1980s helped school them in the array of saws, ropes, scuba gear and other specialized equipment.

They had been handpicked for one of the city's busiest companies, and their captain, Ray Downey, a department legend who also was lost Sept. 11, taught them to press into the flames beyond where others dared to go.

"He'd say, 'You always go farther. You always go farther,'" Evers' wife, Denise, a fire dispatcher, recalled.

Higgins, who grew up in Freeport and raised his son and two daughters in Farmingville, was always asking for more drills and pestering his elders with questions. He had a knack, Evers remembered, for choosing the right tool for any rescue.

In Lake Ronkonkoma, Higgins' son, Christopher, recalled a man "everyone loved to say they knew." Higgins, who has three firefighter brothers, was renowned for his love of a capella singing, a good party, and most of all the job. He'd crawl between legs to beat other firefighters waiting to get at a blaze, and then he'd turn around grinning. When his voice was heard in the smoke, firefighters said, they always knew things would turn out OK.

"His last hour was his finest," Christopher Higgins said. "He gave himself in an attempt to save others."

Just what happened in those final minutes on Sept. 11 will likely never be known. Handheld radio transmissions within the buildings were heard by few who made it out alive, and those memories are clouded by the confusion of events.

A tool belonging to Higgins' Squad 252 was quickly found in the north stairwell area, said his brother Joseph, of Ladder Co. 111 in Bedford-Stuyvesant. Then a firefighter took him aside to quietly say he'd passed his brother on the 28th floor, headed up to help Hatton.

Joseph, Robert and Matthew Higgins began a 13-day marathon of digging near the stairwell, going home only to sleep for a few hours each day. They found another tool from Squad 252. Late Saturday night, they found Hatton. Late Sunday night, while they were resting, Higgins was found.

"We'd like to die of a heart attack in our sleep at home like everyone else," Timothy Higgins said five years ago in an interview after another line-of-duty funeral.

But for firefighters like Higgins, whose company motto was "In Squad We Trust," some things overcome that desire. "The instinct of a firefighter is to make sure everyone gets out alive - you don't think twice about it," Joseph Higgins said. "The gamble is there. You have to depend on each other."