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The earthquake that hit southern California last week crippled the area's major highways but sent thousands of people scrambling onto the electronic superhighway.

With long-distance phone lines down after the quake and other lines of communication cut off, people nationwide turned to such on-line com-puter services as Prodigy, CompuServe, America Online and the Internet to establish contact with friends and relatives, relay information about the disaster and offer assistance.

"People could reach the rest of the country by Prodigy when they couldn't by telephone," said Carol Wallace, manager of communications for the service.

The earthquake struck at 4:31 a.m. local time Jan. 17. Within 2 hours, Prodigy had established a free, dedicated bulletin board. At press time, Ms. Wallace said more than 23,000 notes had been posted.

Prodigy also ran several live, quake-related ads last week as part of its ongoing campaign from J. Walter Thompson USA, New York. The spots ran on Cable News Network and ABC's "NYPD Blue."

Traffic on other services couldn't be determined, but CompuServe, America Online and the Internet also established dedicated quake bulletin boards last week, as did countless other smaller services.

The extensive use of on-line services during the disaster provides a tremendous shot in the arm for companies looking to convince consumers of the need for interactive media capabilities.

"It's sort of like a virtual fallout shelter," said Joshua Harris, president of consultancy Jupiter Communications, New York, who tried without success to reach his brother in Sherman Oaks, Calif., through America Online last week. "You can find out more information on-line than through any other medium."

A sample of messages jamming the Prodigy earthquake bulletin board last week gives a glimpse into why one Prodigy spot dubbed the service an "on-line lifeline":

"I don't know all of you who helped me get a message to my daughter Annie but a great big THANKS," wrote John LaRussa. "She called me last night and all was well with her. She said sev eral of you got hold of her and told her to call me. God Bless You All."

Stew Peterson of Excelsior, Minn., wrote: "Anyone need help to contact a friend or rela tive in western suburbs of Min neapolis to let them know your status I will be glad to try and contact them. Just give me phone number and your mes sage. All the best to you."

The messages "really demon strate the power of the me dium," said Scott Kurnit, exec VP-consumer products, market ing and development of Prod igy.

Mr. Kurnit was in Los Angeles during the earthquake and left for the airport soon after. He said he used his Apple Power book computer to sign onto Prodigy at the airport and was able to get constant news up dates while much of the city was still in the dark.

Mercury Center, the San Jose Mercury News' service on American Online, updated earthquake news stories during the day, as often as every 5 or 10 minutes when the story was breaking. Reports came from wire services and the newspaper's reporters.

Through its News Call service, Mercury Center also offered free information by phone or fax, including on-the-scene reports from a journalist in Los Angeles, audio updates and lists of earthquake precautions.M

Tim Clark contributed to this story.

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