Bill Howell stood back and marveled.

His 600-person team started barely a week earlier to turn the halls of the new Washington Convention Center from a dusty construction zone into a trade-show floor lined with computers and gadgets for an estimated 18,000 techies.

Howell's group, known as FOSE, put the $834 million building to its first test. Trade-show officials waited anxiously through the center's construction over the past 41/2 years and the last-minute push to finish the building in time for the show, which opened last Tuesday.

"The last few days have not gone 'okay.' They've gone remarkably well from where we were," said Howell, executive vice president for the show, owned by PostNewsweek Tech Media, a subsidiary of The Washington Post Co.

But they didn't all go smoothly.

Cell-phone users could not get signals underground as had been promised. Water dripped from the 28-foot ceilings onto a dozen or so booths. The more than 60 escalators and elevators worked sporadically.

With any large trade show, bringing in dozens of tractor-trailer loads of equipment and setting it up takes a long time and can be tricky, organizers said. For FOSE, it was even more of a challenge because the building had yet to be used for a show.

At a black-tie event March 29 to celebrate the convention center's opening, curtains hid stairs with no handrails and bare concrete floors in hallways leading to meeting rooms. Barely 24 hours later, FOSE workers started moving in as construction workers raced by, carrying ladders and cans of paint.

Crews on the underground loading docks covered their mouths with surgical masks as they unloaded crates of computers, printers and high-tech gadgets. "We had our own sandstorm in the trade-show floor from the dust and dirt when the equipment first started coming in," Howell said.

The morning the show opened, attendees stumbled off the Mount Vernon Square Metro stop and into the center's doors just a few feet away, looking dazed and confused. Few looked up to the big red and blue banners pointing them to the trade-show floor. The most-asked question to greeters was, "Where's the nearest bathroom?"

Howell's job, he said, was to "stay out of the way" and let his staff make sure things worked, meet and greet big-name clients and introduce chief executives there to talk about the latest high-tech gadgets.

Trouble Calls

The radio of Najib Mohammed, the center's manager of engineering services, crackled from early morning to late at night.

"There's gray stuff falling from the ceiling," someone yelled to Mohammed as vendors hung huge signs from the rafters of the trade-show floor. He responded, "Yeah I know. Don't worry. It's the protective fire coating from the ceiling and the guys are punching it out when they put up signs."

The escalators by Hall C, one of the main entrances to FOSE's trade-show floor, were not working, a salesperson called in.

Leaks dripped onto the trade-show floor. "We have so many, but they say they're going to get fixed," Mohammed told his boss, Robert E. Schmitz, the center's director of operations. "They know where they are and they're getting to them."

A door to the loading docks was stuck open. To fix it, workers said they had to cut the drywall in the ceiling to get to the motor, and close the entrance for hours. "No, find another way, please," Mohammed told the two workers. They did.

A food service worker with two large stacks of disposable plates in hand asked Mohammed how to get to the trade-show floor. She had gotten lost in the maze of hallways from the show floor to the kitchen.

"There's a line backed up for coffee and we ran out of plates for the pastries," she told Mohammed. He led her to the main door of the trade-show floor, while talking on his cell phone about another problem.

At least his cell phone worked. All along the show floor, people walked about holding their phones to the left, then to the right, then above their heads, seeking a signal. Most gave up and went up one level to make calls in a hallway filled with fellow cell-phone users.

"I've come up and down four or five times," said Mitch Klein, a salesman for a audio visual company in Lanham, pacing the blue and green carpet on the concourse level. "You'd assume in a modern facility [it] would work."

Back on the trade-show floor, a wide-eyed John Knight, a District software salesman, walked around trying to find the way out.

"The building's like Disney World," Knight said. "It's like being in a trance. One of our guys couldn't figure out where to go so he just called us from outside the building and said, 'Come get me. I'm standing at the foot of the stairs.' "

Knight laughed after he hung up with his colleague. "I then realized there's dozen of stairs in here. Which ones?" After 40 minutes, they found each other.

Another attendee, James Buchanan, stopped a friendly convention-center worker for directions to the Metro station just outside. "How do I get out of here?" he asked, throwing his hands up. "I feel like I'm in the middle of downtown Tokyo."

But the bustle of people on the trade-show floor excited Howell and his staff. "That noise, that rumble, lets you know it's a good show. I hear it," Howell said late Tuesday afternoon.

Mohammed walked briskly to a booth where salesmen pitched videoconferencing equipment. A large glass bowl caught drips of water from the ceiling. "They paid $50,000 for that," he said as he called in the booth number to workers who would come to fix it.

The vendor, Steve Griffin, was a bit upset but kept his cool. "They're working on it, they tell me," he said of the leak above his booth for his Aurora, Ill., based company, ReView Video. "They probably should have had everything in before it was open to the public, but hindsight is 20-20.

"I'm used to it," he said of the leaks and non-working escalators. He said he goes to several dozen trade shows a year across the country. "That's what happens when you open a 2.3 million-square-foot building. There are some little inconveniences that are just going to happen."

Another radio call came through to Mohammed. Escalators 3, 4, 5 and 6 were still not working.

Mohammed ducked out of the hall and through back corridors, under workers painting the ceiling and up plastic-covered concrete steps to his office. His computer screen was black, still not working after more than a week. He squeezed past unpacked boxes to get to his phone. The radio crackled again with a voice calling his name.

"Stand by," Mohammed said. "I'm on the leaks." He rang his superintendent at Clark/Smoot Construction, the center's construction manager, and rattled off a list of booth numbers. "Look at 341, 2103, 1246 and 2501 is bad. And don't forget the ones from yesterday -- 2502, 318, 322, 921, 1502, . . . ." He rattled off several more.

The next day, Mohammed ran into one of the Clark managers. "We've got the water under control, Mohammed," he said. Mohammed looked out a window and noticed the sun was starting to peek through the clouds. Mohammed said, "It also stopped raining."

A few feet away, Mohammed smiled as he passed two working escalators.

Debriefing

At a meeting Friday morning, after FOSE ended, convention center staff members took meticulous notes on what did not work, as Howell read his list.

A few halogen bulbs flickered over registration booths because they had not been screwed in tightly. One sign in a meeting room read, "Maximum Occupancy 307." Another sign in the back of the room read, "Maximum Occupancy 308."

Attendees could not find the handicapped parking spaces on 7th Street because of utility work and construction fences blocking them. Coffee got to meeting rooms late and cold because workers were lost. And the faucets in a men's restroom were too tall, splashing water on the counters.

Despite the hiccups, convention center officials said they were excited and relieved to get through their first trade show. They recognized they had room to improve.

"I couldn't be happier considering all the challenges we had," center general manager Lewis H. Dawley III said last Friday afternoon. "FOSE got through without any major issues. That's what I want to see.

"Some of these growing pains are things I expect when you open a building," he said. "We'll be able to get them fixed pretty quickly. You've always got to worry and wonder are things going to go well. Beyond the little glitches we had a great opening period."

Howell said: "We stressed their building and their ability to run it. It went better than expected."

Mary Birnie, an independent operations consultant whom Howell hired to oversee the show, added: "Now they can say the Washington Convention Center is open -- almost."

Bill Howell, right, general manager of FOSE, walks the show floor, checking on problems.