On the opening day of Garfinckel's going-out-of-business sale yesterday, it was hard to pinpoint the moment when Washington's longtime bastion of civility and good taste in retailing went berserk.

Was it when a woman, who waited all morning in the broiling sun for the flagship store at 1401 F St. NW to open two hours late, collapsed in the heat and was carried away?

Or was it as the riot of cheesy sales signs in screaming orange plastered all over the once-elegant store made it look like a discount T-shirt shop on a beachside boardwalk?

Or was it when the crazed customer who could not get service grabbed a charge plate machine only to be chased down packed aisles on the main floor of the store by a previously well-behaved salesman?

The scene was chaotic at Garfinckel's store in downtown Washington at the start of its three-month liquidation sale.

It was ugly. It was messy. It was disorganized. It was cash, Visa or MasterCard only, all sales final.

It was everything Garfinckel's was not in the old days -- before buyouts and changes in ownership and before last week's bankruptcy court filing for the chain of nine stores. This was heaven for die-hard and veteran shoppers, and they swarmed into the store in full force, sweating, pawing, pushing, power shopping.

"I am looking for anything that is a real bargain. Jewelry, crystal, clothes," said Mary Freeman, a postal worker, as she waited for Garfinckel's to open its polished bronze doors.

Like many customers who sweated out the near-90 degree temperatures, Freeman took the morning off from her job to bargain hunt.

The sale attracted people of every race and economic background: older ladies with battered shopping bags, young women turned out perfectly in tailored suits and sporting White House ID tags, mothers with babies in strollers, nattily dressed young men, and teenagers in shorts and T-shirts.

The lure was Garfinckel's top-of-the line merchandise marked down 20 percent by Schottenstein Stores Corp. of Columbus, Ohio, a prominent retail liquidator handling the Garfinckel's sale. Schottenstein bought Garfinckel's $22 million inventory for 43.5 percent off earlier in the week.

One store manager estimated that 3,000 shoppers were on the main floor at one time.

"I'm not going down there. No way," said the secretary in the office of George P. Kelly, Garfinckel's president.

Kelly himself was on the main floor surveying the mob scene. He looked horrified and scared of the hordes trampling through his formerly decorous sanctum.

When asked by a reporter how he thought the sale was going, the normally affable Kelly looked pained, as he clutched a roll of masking tape and a neon sale sign.

"How do you think it's going?" he asked before scurrying away.

In the designer purse department, a saleswoman showed a pricey purse to a customer and confided, "These were on sale for a third off a while ago, but nobody came. Now they're 20 percent off and everybody comes."

At 1:30 p.m., a D.C. fire marshal pronounced the store overcrowded and the store closed until 3:30 p.m. Catcalls came from people outside who had waited hours to get in. When they pushed toward the doors demanding to enter, a guard threatened to arrest them for inciting to riot.

Despite the madness at the downtown store, other Garfinckel's branches reported heavy shopping, though all of it in control.

At Garfinckel's newest store on Connecticut Avenue NW, the scene was subdued. A guard let lunchtime shoppers into the store a few at a time as others trickled out.

Shoppers showed some manners and apologized to sales personnel for capitalizing on their bad fortune.

But there, too, buyers were picking at the bones, with one young man inquiring about buying the store's mannequins.

Everyone was an armchair retailer, kibitzing about why Garfinckel's folded.

"I've been coming here since I was a little girl and since the last takeover it's just been dying," said L.K. Graves, musing about the multiple changes in ownership that Garfinckel's endured poorly in the last decade. "When it was family-owned, it was all-class, elegant. It's so sad that this will be my last visit."

A mood of nostalgia pervaded the sale as people realized this is the end of an era at Garfinckel's, even though a battle-zone atmosphere prevailed.

So some shoppers simply gave up and headed out the door, talking about the sale as if they had visited the pyramid of King Tut and had made off with the gold cats and throne.

Many left empty-handed. The average dress, even at 20 percent off, still cost $150.

"Woodward & Lothrop is giving 30 percent off down the street," sniffed one man about the other local department store chain.

Many customers said they would wait for the merchandise to be marked down even more so they could really get a deal.

By 4:30 p.m., the situation had calmed, even at the 14th Street store. There were no lines, but the store was pleasantly full with the kind of crowds that Garfinckel's has not attracted in years.

"If they had this many customers all the time, they may not have gone under," one smartly dressed older woman said to her shopping companion.

"Do you think they could make enough money to stay afloat after this?"

Not likely, but it was a nice thought on a tumultuous day.