Washington area investors showed little sign of panic yesterday as they watched the stock market collapse, but plenty of them suffered from the record plunge.

From downtown K Street to suburban Tysons Corner, groups of investors gathered to watch the debacle -- not on the small screens of television where so many disasters are displayed, but on computer terminals and quote boards at Washington area brokerages. They were watching a record-breaking stock market bath -- with the Dow Jones industrial average losing 508.00 points as about 604 million shares were bought and sold on the New York Stock Exchange.

"I've been hit a lot, but I've never been hit as hard in a few days as I've been hit this time," said Washingtonian Valerie Steele as she watched the electronic quote board in the customer room of brokerage firm Charles Schwab & Co. Inc. "I've never seen anything like this at all."

Steele said she has played the stock market since the 1950s and wanted to stay in "as long as I can." One of her holdings, she added, was "gambling casino stocks." Casino? "Yeah," Steele said. "Kind of redundant, huh?"

Steele was not the only person to meet the stock market's worst day with humor.

At an international investors' conference at the Mayflower Hotel sponsored by the American Stock Exchange, 15 or 20 people clustered around a computer terminal in the hallway. When the Dow rose 1 point, from down 300 to down 299, someone shouted, "It's a rally!"

Downtown streets looked the way they have after presidential assassinations or other cataclysmic events: People gathered everywhere in small knots, talking of the latest Dow average and nervously exchanging price quotes as they sat down to lunch.

" ... down 200 points, last I heard," said one businessman to another as they strolled along K Street. " ... They got computers, and that makes it worse," another was overheard to say. At the K Street office of Dean Witter Reynolds Inc., a crowd anxiously watched the computer screen placed in the firm's front window -- even though a malfunction meant most of its price information was out of date.

"Institutions are dumping stock wholesale. And as individuals get out of mutual funds, the funds have to unload the stocks," said Leslie J. Silverstone, a Dean Witter senior vice president.

But he said smaller investors had not been extensively involved in the stock market for several months.

As the day wore on, the crowds that clustered around wire machines, ticker tapes, computer terminals and electronic quote boards grew larger. The decline of their fortunes was told in the reports from the Dow wire that marched across screens around the city:

CBS Inc. down 42 1/8

IBM down 31

Doug Graham watched the market fall in the Schwab quote room as if he had seen it before. He nearly had: He was 1 year old when the stock market crashed on Oct. 29, 1929. His father's savings were wiped out in the resulting series of bank collapses.

"I'm out of the market. I'm short {profiting when stock prices fall}," Graham said. "I've expected this to happen for weeks. We're going through a very painful period, a wringout that's been due for two or three years.

"I watched Dad struggle through the Depression and the thing I learned was that you keep liquid, and you don't owe money," he said. He was one of many who either got out yesterday or had left the market before its sharp declines of the last few weeks.

"Hell, yes," said a government analyst when asked at the crowded counter of the Fidelity Investors Center on 18th Street whether he was getting out of stocks.

"I think it's going way down. I'm taking everything out {of mutual funds} and putting it into certificates of deposit and bonds. Most of my money is already in real estate. I've never trusted the stock market," said the analyst, who asked not to be identified.

However, Fidelity's computers were so overloaded that he could not get a price quote and had to postpone his transaction.

Teledyne down 49 3/4

The mood was upbeat, even jovial, at the Tysons Corner office of Merrill Lynch, where many investors said they had already beaten the market. Anita Kenner, a Vienna real estate agent, said prices were low enough that she was tempted to pick up some stock.

Thomas Terrio of McLean, an investor for 30 years, observed around noon, "It reminds me of war. Just before the battle it's calm." He added, "I figured this would happen, but not of this magnitude."

Merrill Lynch office manager Gordon Linke reported very heavy telephone traffic and "a lot of customer handholding." There were a few liquidations, but no panic, he said. By early afternoon, the atmosphere was somewhat frenzied as brokers called their customers to tell them what was happening. One broker was overheard beginning his conversations with the words, "It's not 1929, but ... "

CapCities-ABC down 32

Other area brokers also spent the day attached to their telephones.

"I haven't had a chance to take a breath all day," said Steven Ross, broker and vice president with Ferris and Company Inc. in Washington. "We're doing a lot of handholding right now. I've never seen a day like this."

A broker at another firm spent the day keeping clients from taking rash actions.

"No," she told one worried caller. "Don't sell. Don't do anything." She listened a bit, and said: "Um, hum. Yeah. I know ... But it's not a crash."

Allegis down 27 7/8

Investors had their own theories about why the market was in free fall. The principal culprit, several said, was computerized trading -- the high-speed shifting of investments dominated by institutional investors in search of immediate gains.

Computerized trading is destroying the market, said Sam Prutch, 45, a Washington businessman in data processing.

"I've been in the market ever since I was 18 years old. I've seen ups and downs before; but I've never seen anything like this in such a short period of time," Prutch said. "By God! I hope something good comes out of this. I hope that the SEC {Securities and Exchange Commission} steps in and severely limits the number of contracts an institution or party may hold in programs."

Eastman Kodak down 27 1/4

The mood at the investors' conference at the Mayflower was less than cheerful. Many of those attending were from countries whose stock markets had fallen even harder than those in the United States.

When Adm. William J. Crowe Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, attempted to put a little levity into his speech to the group about 200, he was met with icy silence.

"I assume that before I leave someone will explain to me why the market fell and why it will go back up. And please tell me before you tell anyone else," he said to a few polite murmurs.

The only real belly laugh of the day came when the moderator introduced a panel of experts -- replacing the scheduled speaker from the Treasury Department, who was called back for emergency meetings -- and said they would "try to explain what happened today." The investors howled.

Digital Equipment down 42 1/4

There were a few bright spots yesterday. At the Washington office of Deak International Ltd., which trades in precious metals, coins and foreign exchange, investors lined up to put their cashed-out stock money into gold and silver.

"Many people are coming in with big grins on their faces, particularly people who understand how the markets operate," said asset manager David Montgomery. "On a day like today, they enjoy jumping around from stocks to commodities. It's been quite an exciting day. It's good to see the end of it."

Staff Writers Warren Brown, Malcolm Gladwell, Nancy L. Ross and Sharon Warren Walsh contributed to this report.