Heavy rain, some of it freezing, pelted the Washington area last night in the wake of the year's first major snow storm that dumped four to seven inches here, snarling traffic, triggering hundreds of minor accidents and delighting children by closing most schools in the area.

The giant storm also whipped other sections of the East as it moved slowly up the Atlantic Coast, leaving a trail of new snow and ice from the Carolinas to New Jersey and taking at least 18 lives in the last days. No weather-related fatalities were reported in the Washington area.

As the snow fell here yesterday, thousands of employees apparently decided to stay home. Absenteeism was reported higher than normal at many federal government agencies.

Road crews poured thousands of tons of sand and rock salt to keep most major commuter routes open. National Airport was closed for more than two hours in the morning, delaying flights while workmen ploughed 4.5 inches of snow from the runways.

Despite the outwardly dramatic conditions, National Weather Service and local snow emergency official noted that things went fairly smoothly during the day.Road crews were out before dawn in many areas. Commuter traffic was relatively light. The snow, which had started at 12:30 a.m. yesterday stopped shortly after noon and turned largely to rain, easing conditions for the evening rush hour.

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Sunday should be partly cloudy and cold with highs as to 30 degrees and lows 15 to 20 degrees.

Througbour the early morning yesterday, police reported hundreds of minor accidents on commuter routes, especially in the outlying suburbs where ice buildup was heavier.

Virginia State Police reported more than 60 noninjury accidents on state highways in Fairfax County alone between midnight and noon. Police often had trouble getting to reported accidents because they had to stop enroute to attend to unreported collisions.

In Montgomery County, a state trooper was pulled over on the shoulder of the Capital Beltway near Georgia Avenue writing up a minor fender-bender report when another car slid into his cruiser, doing about $50 damage.

In Alexandria, a snowplow nearly got stuck on Bayliss Street. With its blade aloft, the plow was unable to get traction, according to a witness, and had to make several tries before it finally lumbered away, leaving the street unplowed.

In the early morning, D.C. police scout cars stood in line at some gas stations waiting to get chains on their tires. Police were constantly asking on their radios for more road flares as supplies ran out with the mounting toll of accidents.

Most area public schools were closed because of the snow. Ironically, schools in Garrett and Allegany counties in westernmost Maryland, where snow accumulations were much greater, remained open.

"It doesn't bother us," said a state trooper in Cumberland, "We're used to it."

D.C. public schools were closed for the first time in at least three years.

"It's very unusual for us to close," said Elearnor McQuaide, secretary to School Supt. Vincent Reed, ". . . but when we realized that this snow was going to be particularly bad, the superintendent decided we should close."

She said Reed was up at 4 a.m. consulting with the snow emergency officials and was in his office downtown by 6 a.m. The chief consideration in closing the schools, McQuaide said, was whether the snow and ice would pose a serious risk to bus and other transportation for pupils and teachers.

Even though the main commuter routes were cleared by road crews, "most of the secondary roads were still covered in snow and ice," she said.

At 6:30 a.m., Reed decided to close the schools and notified local radio and television stations, which in turn broadcast the information.

Early notification is important, McQuaide said, so that parents who work and are away from home during the day can make other arrangements for their children.

Prince George's County school officials went through a similar process. School transportation director John Huffman was up at 3:30 a.m., and along with eight assistants cruised some of the county roads, monitoring the situation, according to a school spokeswoman.

With heavily falling snow, below-freezing temperatures and a forecast for freezing rain later in the day. Huffman recommended closing the schools. School Supt. Edward Feeney approved the recommendation at 5:30 a.m., and notification was relayed to radio and television stations.

While most schools were closed, many federal government agencies reported higher than normal absenteeism. Many employees arrived late and left early.

Commerce Department headquarters downtown, for example, estimated a 10 per cent absentee rate amont its 5,000 employees. This is a "little higher than normal," said a spokeswoman.

The Commerce Department's Bureau of Standards office in suburban Gaithersburg, however, estimated a 25 per cent absentee rate among its 3,100 workers.

One Agriculture Department supervisor reported almost full attendance yesterday in his section, but a Small Business Administration official said absenteeism was running as high as 30 to 40 per cent in his office.

The 4,000-employee Civil Service Commission office downtown reported a 30 per cent absentee rate compared with a normal rate of 10 per cent for a Friday in January.

Metro officials reported that most trains ran on schedule and buses [WORD ILLEGIBLE] the Atlantic Coast but moisture swirling counterclockwise around it reached across the Atlantic states into the Midwest, dumping snow and fozen rain from the southern plains states to New Jersey.

United Press International reported at least 18 weather-related fatalities. These include three each in Alabama, Tennessee and Oklahoma, two each in Arkansas, Mississippi and Illinois and one each in Texas, Louisiana and North Carolina.