All January long people in Washington, walked uneasily, trapped inside big coast watching the pavement for ice. Faces clenched in the cold like fists, doors shut tight against the outdoors. And then the President asked us to turn down our thermostats.

For a city lulled by a few gentler years, it's been a very nasty winter in Washington.

Since December 1, eight persons have died of exposure to the cold. The city water and sewage department multiplied its usual labor costs by 12 in one frantic rush of frozen pipe repair. Public housing tenants have huddled by lit ovens for warmth. The unemployment rate in construction industries here is up by almost 25 per cent.

Hit-and-run auto accidents, many of them apparently minor collisions caused by the ice, were up more than 25 per cent in January over last year. Rats crawled out of the frozen ground and into basements and back porches. Plastic trash bags froze to the grass, salt sat uselessly on ice too cold to metl, and Metro workers set up outdoor space heaters to keep freshly poured concrete from freezing before it set.

"It's the worst winter in 30 years, declared Viola Ponder, 67, who lives in a third floor walkup in the Far Northeast housing project called Lincoln Heights. She sat in a friend's apartment in the project, wearing an overcoat, gloves and a thick muffler. The project has been without heat since November.

A 16-year-old youth died in the cold the day after Christmas, when he caught and crushed his foot in the battery-operated tailgate of a parked van in Southeast. Apparently no one saw the injured youth, and the next day he was found dead from the wound and the night's bitter cold.

His was one of the eight deaths caused or hastened by the frigid temperatures in Washington since December 1. Only four persons died that way from November through February last year, according to deputy medical examiner Dr. Brian D. Blackbourn.

Blackbourn said the other deaths, six men and a woman, were all caused by exposure to the extreme weather in combination with "chronic and acute alcoholism."

A 53-year-old man was found on the back porch of a Southeast stranger's house. Another, 72, died in an abandoned building where he apparently sought shelter from the cold. A 37-year-old man was found dead sitting upright by a barrel on Florida Avenue NW, where he and homeless men like him built fires to keep warm.

The woman's death confounded medical examiners. Blackhourne said. She suffered a face wound and presumably died from the injury and cold exposure outside her Northeast apartment building. It could not be determined whether she was deliberately or accidentally injured, Blackbourne said.

At least three children, thinking this icy winter fun, went out with their sleds and never came home. Blackbourne said he had thought the attention give 10-year-old Michele Maley's death in an Arlington sledding accident would caution parents and children.

Within a week, however, a 13-year-old Oxon Hill boy died in a District hospital after his sled ran into a concrete bench. And soon after an 11-year-old Washington boy slid down a slope with two friends on a sheet of plywood, right into the roadway where a passing panel truck killed him and hospitalized one of his companions.

More fortunate children got through January with only colds, minor injuries, or asthmas attacks. A spate of such complaints filled Children's Hospital during one extra busy three-day period from January 16 to 18,

Emergency rooms at Howard, Georgetown and George Washington University Hospitols reported great increases in the numbers of fractures and bruises due to slips and falls on the ice, but few cases of frostbite.

The burn unit at Washington Hospital Center, has been "extremely busy," according to spokeswoman Jane Snyder, from injuries caused by "people trying to keep warm."

Street repair and Metro construction have been hampered by the cold, too, as the normal problems of winter have been aggravated by icy streets. Truck drivers carrying hot asphalt for street repair sometimes can't negotiate the ice to reach the potholes they are supposed to fix; and in cold weather, when the asphalt cools quickly in the truck, the drivers must carry smaller quantities.

Metro workers have had to delay the pouring of asphalt and dirt fill, because if these materials freeze and then thaw, they can settle into the ground and damage construction. Concrete also freezes in cold weather, and won't harden properly, forcing contractors to either postpone the pouring or keep space heaters nearby all night long.

Unemployment insurance claims by laid off construction workers rose a marked 23.8 per cent during two weeks ending Jan. 22, compared to the pattern of past winters District officials said.

The increase had nothing to do with the energy crunch, but was solely the result of cold weather preventing outdoor work. Rudolph F. Richardson, assistant director of the D.C. Unemployment Compensation Board said.

In addition, the week ending Jan. 29 produced an increase in claims from workers in retail sales, transportation and services which officials attribute to the weather. Richardson said the board has so far received two claims, so far, from persons laid off as a result of the fuel conservation effort.

Any outdoor work, as one Metro official put it, is "just inefficient in cold weather." The workers must wear extra shirts, extra pants: they move a little more slowly. One D.C. police officer spent her entire Inaugural Day parade shift wearing gray battery-operated socks.

Other workers must occasionally endure the cold without much protection: water and sewer repairmen, for example sometimes have to kneel outdoors in ice and water and shut off a water main bare-handed.

"Friday night we had a crew that looked like Father Christmas," the official said. "Those that had beards had ice on their beards."

Frozen pipes, burst water meters, and ruptured water mains have plagued the city water and sewer bureau since the cold began.

Between Jan. 17 and Jan. 26, according to bureau records, the city logged 535 broken waterpipes, 170 leaks in the street, 314 frozen meters, 395 frozen pipe complaints that were referred to private plumbers, and 13 broken water mains.

"We have nothing within the last 10 years to compare with that," said Harold Stearn, bureau chief.

Rats have appeared in unusual numbers for January, said Jim Murphy, chief of the city's bureau of community hygiene. Normally when the weather turns cold the rats either burrow underground or find shelter indoors, Murphy said, but this year, when the January cold slapped the city, the rats emerged again.

Oddly, it has proved a blessing, Murphy said: an extraordinary number of them are freezing to death.