When Al McCray took his midday work break yesterday, he knew just where to go: a cool lobby that supplied him with a comfortable chair, some thirst-quenching water, and most important of all, a cup of ice.

The water was for him, the ice for his pet. The cat likes to eat it.

McCray and B.C.--"that's for Black Cat," he said--have been toiling in an un-air-conditioned building this week, the somnolent whir of a solitary fan blowing hot air their way.

"I've got five more hours to deal with this heat," said McCray, who sells antique furniture and works half a block from the District's Frank D. Reeves Municipal Center that doubled yesterday as a cooling center for the hot and sticky.

At 5:30 yesterday afternoon, it was 97 degrees at National Airport. No temperature records were broken but this month's unrelenting heat wave--the second hottest July on record, according to the National Weather Service--sent area residents into air-conditioned buildings, swimming pools, street sprinklers and, for those with respiratory problems, to hospitals for emergency care.

On the 600 block of Morton Street NW, in the Parkview neighborhood, children squealed and jumped as they choreographed a water ballet under a wide-arching spray. The water came from a hydrant outfitted with a sprinkler by the District's Office of Emergency Preparedness.

The 13-screen Regal Theater in downtown Rockville swarmed with teenagers and adults seeking solace in its dim, cool confines. Traffic backed up in front of the marquee as parents dropped off children and occasionally jumped out of the cars themselves to check on tickets before parking a block away.

"The heat makes a movie theater better than just about any place else today," said Ann Burton, who works with Montgomery County Child Welfare Services. "Even a swimming pool is not cool enough."

About the only saving grace, forecasters said, was a low pressure trough that moved through the metropolitan area, touching off widely scattered showers and a few thunderstorms at midday. The area received between 1/4- to 1/2-inch of rain in a few spotty places--nothing to speak of, considering the drought.

"Hopefully, we'll get a tropical storm up here," said John Newkirk, program manager for the National Weather Service at Dulles International Airport. "Nobody wants that, but that's what it will take to take care of the drought conditions here."

Newkirk's advice for today and tomorrow: "It would be a good day for the beach or the pool." The forecast: more of the same.

Temperatures are forecast to be in the 90s through the weekend and into the beginning of next week--with heat-index values of about 100 degrees.

Montgomery County hospitals and police reported nothing out of the ordinary yesterday related to the heat. Because of the "Code Red" air quality alert, county bus service was offered free throughout the day, as it will be today.

But life in Montgomery, as elsewhere, slowed to a molasses pace on a sweltering day.

Loretta James leaned against a wall as she waited for her Ride-On bus to Gaithersburg after work. The receptionist for the state Child Support Enforcement Deparment knew what awaited her after a 20-minute ride and a hike of "four long blocks, country blocks, uphill" to her house: a 72-degree air-conditioned living room.

"You know that's going to feel good," James said. "This summer has been long, hot and unpleasant. But you know what? There's nothing we can do about it."

The heat wave has been especially brutal in the Midwest. The Associated Press reports at least 55 heat-related deaths since July 19, including 18 in Missouri, 18 in Illinois, 10 in Ohio, two each in North Carolina, Georgia and Maryland, and one each in Pennsylvania, Arkansas and Oklahoma.

In Northern Virginia, hospitals report a steady stream of patients seeking emergency help for respiratory problems, especially those already suffering from asthma, emphysema or other ailments.

"People who already have a difficult time breathing are having an even harder time when temperatures climb to this level," said Troy Petenbrink, a spokesman for Inova Fairfax Hospital. "The air doesn't circulate well, and car exhaust and other pollution just gets trapped."

Virginia health officials report just two heat-related deaths so far this year: A Smithfield man died last month while working on the killing floor of a hog butchering plant, which is not air-conditioned, and a man in the Richmond area died two weeks ago from heat-related causes.

In the District at least two deaths have been attributed to the heat during July, and in another case, a severely retarded man who was left in a van on a 99-degree day died. The official cause of that death is being investigated. In Prince William County, officials are offering a special weekend "cooling center" near Potomac Mills Mall, although the shelter has had only five visitors in its first two weeks.

The District, Prince William, Fairfax and other counties also offer free fans for elderly and poor residents who cannot afford to keep cool. Fairfax County has handed out 60 fans since June 1, but emergency officials there report no calls this summer from residents seeking shelter from the heat.

Potomac Electric Power Co. asked its 700,000 customers to conserve energy voluntarily yesterday, acting on the request of the regional pool that manages the power supply for Maryland, Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

Then as electrical demand increased in the afternoon, Pepco spokesman Robert Dobkin said the utility implemented the residential "Kilowatcher Program," which regulates the air-conditioning compressors of almost 200,000 customers who voluntarily participate in the program. Some 300 of Pepco's largest commercial customers also participate in a similar program in which their power is reduced to prearranged levels.

"By implementing these programs, we were able to save 250 megawatts of power," Dobkin said. "That should be enough to get us through the day without having to implement more severe measures."

Virginia Power reported no problems in meeting consumers' power demands on Friday.

Staff writers Scott Wilson and Dan Eggen contributed to this report.