The Washington area sizzled through Independence Day heat that failed to set a record for the date but felled at least 16 marchers in the Constitution Avenue parade yesterday.

And that was at lunchtime, before the mercury surged to 95 degrees, five short of the 1919 record for July 4.

The area didn't suffer alone yesterday, as much of the East and the Midwest approached record readings.

Baltimore tied its 1966 mark of 100 degrees; the mercury hit 97 in Erie, Pa.

Locally, the heat and a variety of holiday festivities apparently made for a slow-arriving crowd on the Mall in anticipation of last night's fireworks.

Those who did come early generally didn't last long without a plan for keeping cool while staking out a prime spot for viewing the evening's pyrotechnics. Some veterans of the space-saving game offered tips for coping with the weather:

"We sweat," said Bertha Harty, of Marion, Ohio, who laid claim to a coveted shady area, set up a lawn chair and dug into the cooler for a cold drink to minimize the effects of the heat.

"I just live right," countered her husband, Jim, as he challenged his grandson to a game of checkers.

For Army 1st Lt. Paul Gress, of Lancaster, Pa., a member of the U.S. Marine Drum and Bugle Corps, the drill was to drink plenty of liquids and change clothes often. Decked out in shorts and shades during a break between morning and evening musical performances, he confessed, "This is definitely a lot easier than full dress uniform."

Throughout the city and the region, it was a day for bikinis and beer, sun hats and sunscreen. Soft drinks sold sprightly along Constitution Avenue during the lunchtime parade, but sweat shirt sales seemed to shrink as the afternoon wore on.

It was not a day to be carrying a hot tuba, or even a hot pizza. D.C. police cracked down on Domino's Pizza employees and others who were marketing wares without vendors' licenses.

As of late last night, the Red Cross reported having treated between 400 and 500 people in the Mall area, most of them for heat-related problems.

Spokeswoman Kathy Freeman said that 75 people, including 16 parade participants, had been sent to area hospitals for further treatment.

Although the relative humidity was relatively moderate and a stiff breeze offered some relief, the heat index -- a measure of heat and humidity -- approached an uncomfortable level of 100, according to Accu-Weather.

Steve Kerrick, of Silver Spring, set up a pint-sized tent near the Washington Monument for his two daughters, 4-year-old Jennifer and 2-year-old Heather.

By mid-afternoon it was questionable whether the colorful sun shelter would trap or ward off the worst of the heat.

Jennifer shook her head with an emphatic yes when asked if she had helped her dad put up the tent. She was excited about the fireworks, some six hours hence, but admitted to an even greater interest: ice cream. "I've never been here before {on the Fourth of July}. I thought it would be packed by now," said her father as he was dragged off to the nearest ice cream vendor.

The Patrick Farrington Irish Dancers, who arrived here from Dublin on Monday, sat and sang in a shady spot to keep their minds off the heat after their performance in the noon parade. Teenager Annette O'Boyce, her face as crimson as her hair, noted that she'd never before encountered such temperatures.

Meanwhile, the Golden Empire Suns Youth Band, from Bakersfield, Calif., was no more prepared for Washington in July. As Red Cross workers pulled a glittering red skirt and other clothing from a suffering marcher, one of three band members who sought treatment, band director Fred H. Scheible Jr. stood by, fuming.

"These kids stood in the sun for three hours before they ever marched," Scheible said. "This is our first trip to Washington . . . . We won't be back."Staff writer Linda Wheeler contributed to this report.