The six killers serving life behind bars had spent a lot of time in the prison chapel recently. But they were not singing in the choir or rehearsing for the Christmas play. They were digging.

For weeks, the men sneaked undetected into the crawl space beneath the red brick chapel at Glades Correctional Institution, carving a 45-foot-long tunnel from the rich, black Okeechobee muck with pilfered shovels and burrowing under a razor-wire fence. Then a few minutes before roll call Monday evening, they made their dash for freedom, in one of the most dramatic escapes in recent Florida history.

One was recaptured almost immediately. But the five others -- all of them serving life sentences for first-degree murder -- are still at large and considered armed and extremely dangerous. At least three of the escapees ran for the sugar cane fields that surround the facility. Bloodhounds lost their scent about a mile from the prison and officials speculated the men were still in the area, perhaps hiding in the snake-infested cane, whose stiff, razor-like leaves can cut human flesh to ribbons.

"All of these men have killed before," said Glades Superintendent Gerald Abudi-Wasi, who noted that the escapees are armed with crude but sharp prison-made knives. "And they say it gets easier the second time." Prison officials said the first hours after the escape were the most risky for locals as the men presumably searched for a change of clothes from their blue uniforms and tried to steal a getaway car. Glades officials, seeking to explain how such an elaborate escape could have occurred, said there was not a whisper of an impending break among prison snitches who usually tip them off. "This was the most tight-lipped escape attempt I've heard in my 22 years," said assistant supervisor John Townsend. Still, State Attorney Kathy Fernandez Rundle in Miami, where most of the men had stood trial, said, "It's hard for me to understand how any group of criminals can congregate like that without being supervised." Townsend said the captured escapee, Felix Carbonell, who turned 34 today, told officials the jailbreak was planned over the last two months. The assistant superintendent guessed that the prisoners had been digging their tunnel about three weeks. Their escape was straightforward but highly risky. The men had pried loose a grate that allowed them access to the crawl space beneath the prison chapel, a building raised like many here because of flooding on the rich black muck that coats the farmlands south of Lake Okeechobee. Once under the chapel, the men apparently worked in shifts, changing into spare uniforms for the dirty work, digging a path about three feet deep and 45 feet long. They used some stolen lumber to buttress the tunnel. Prison officials speculated that the escapees used the noise surrounding the construction of a more secure fence to cover their efforts. Anyone who asked about the long hours they spent in the chapel was told they were engaged in choir practice and rehearsal for a Christmas play.

When the men made their break, Abudi-Wasi said, they tripped a fence alarm, but investigating guards found no evidence of a tunnel. Ten minutes later, a tower guard saw the men dashing toward the sugar cane fields. Today, 60 correctional officers combed the town of Belle Glade and nearby farms, looking for clues. The dogs, however, had been called back, and no one in the town reported seeing the men. A car was stolen in town this morning and has not been recovered, but investigators said tonight they did not know if it was taken by the men.

"This is the only time we can remember that this many convicted murderers broke out at the same time," said Debbie Buchanan, spokesman for the Florida Department of Corrections.

In 1993, seven prisoners escaped from the Hendry Correctional Institution in Immokalee. One, a convicted murderer, is still at large. And again in 1980, 10 inmates escaped from Florida State Prison in Raiford. All were captured, but one died in the attempt.

Glades officials said the prison, built in the 1940s, was designed to house 200 inmates but now holds 1,217 men -- guarded by about 200 correctional officers. Abudi-Wasi, the superintendent, said he had told his men to be alert because jailbreaks traditionally occur as new security measures are added. The prison was adding a new, higher fence anchored by a cement trench. Abudi-Wasi said the construction of the fence, scheduled to be completed in May, would now be accelerated.

The warden, via television, warned Belle Glade residents not to tangle with the men but to call police. "Catching people ... well, you always have plans, but a lot of times, it is a matter of luck," he said. "Someone sees something suspicious. An escapee gets hungry or thirsty and surfaces." In Belle Glade, most residents went about their business today. Renee Reyes, eating a burrito at Taco Bell, said, "I heard about the escape. But am I worried? Yes and no. They're not going to come in here for a taco. But tonight? You can be sure I will keep my doors locked and my family at home. These guys sound like very bad men."

The escapees, all of whom are Cuban-born and come from Miami, are Florencio Alvarez, 34, sentenced to life for first-degree murder, who shot a victim several times and bragged later of the killing; Hector Rivas, 32, jailed for the murder of a Key West charter boat captain; Armando Junco, 62, sentenced to life for two counts of first-degree murder, robbery and marijuana trafficking; Jesus Martinez, 48, sentenced to 99 years for first-degree murder; and Juan Fleitas, 30, jailed for life for first-degree murder.

CAPTION: Dirt mounds in the foreground, created as part of a new fencing project, are believed to have been used by inmates to dump earth from escape tunnel.

CAPTION: HOW THEY GOT OUT (Graphic is not available.)