ELIZABETH, N.J. - Two jail inmates used photos of bikini-clad women to hide holes in their jail cell through which they escaped and left behind a thank-you note, signed with a smiley face, for a guard they claimed had helped them, officials said yesterday.

Jose Espinosa, 20, and Otis Blunt, 32, squeezed through the openings sometime before dawn Saturday in a high-security unit of the Union County jail, jumped onto a rooftop below, and made it over a 25-foot-high fence topped with razor wire, authorities said.

Authorities withheld the name of the officer the inmates said had been involved. The note, found in Espinosa's cell, read, "Thank you Officer . . . for the tools needed. You're a real pal. Happy holidays."

Authorities are investigating the claims. The guard named in the note has not yet turned in a report, and disciplinary action has not been taken against any guard, said county prosecutor Theodore Romankow, whose office is overseeing the probe.

Police were searching yesterday for the two men. Espinosa was awaiting sentencing for manslaughter in a drive-by shooting, and Blunt is facing charges in the robbery and shooting of a convenience-store manager.

Meanwhile, authorities are reviewing security measures. They barred inmates from pinning up pictures from magazines on their cell walls.

The jailbreak is reminiscent of one in the movie "The Shawshank Redemption" in which the main character, an inmate, uses posters of women, including of a bikini-clad Raquel Welch, to conceal an escape tunnel he had been digging.

Espinosa and Blunt used at least two improvised tools - a thick metal wire like those used to bind chain-link fences to poles, and a 10-pound steel water shut-off wheel - to remove cinderblocks from the wall, Romankow said.

The thick wire was used to scrape away mortar around a cinderblock in the wall between their cells, and then around a cinderblock in an exterior wall in Espinosa's cell that faced busy rail tracks, Romankow said.

The shut-off wheel was used to crush the cinderblocks so they could be hidden in the cells, Romankow said. They also laid out pillows and sheets to make it look like men were sleeping under blankets, authorities said.

Once they landed on the railroad easement outside the fence, they ran in opposite directions, Romankow said. No blood was found.

The escape preparations appear to have been done relatively quickly. Each man was in his cell for only a few weeks, Romankow said. Investigators were trying to determine when the cells were last searched. It was the first escape since the high-rise jail opened in 1986. *