The biggest winter storm in five years unloaded five to eight inches of snow on the Washington area yesterday, closing schools, delaying trains, buses and planes and spawning gargantuan traffic jams from one end of the area to the other.

Cars filled with commuters slithered through ice and slush during the morning rush hour as hundreds of plows and sand spreaders -- some not called out until hours after the snow had started -- battled to keep roadways navigable.

"It's bad, bad everywhere," said Fairfax County police officer R. A. Carlisle, "and the side roads are the worst with ice under the snow and driving treacherous."

Amtrak reported jam-packed trains running 20 minutes to an hour late. Washington National Airport was inoperable until its main runway reopened at 1 p.m. Greyhound and Trailways reported many late-arriving buses, especially from the South.

Every public school system in the area was closed for the day. The District of Columbia system opened its buildings briefly, then sent the pupils home at 8:45 a.m. after a switch by the city's privately retained weather forecast system indicated the weather was going to get worse.

By the time the snow stopped falling before 9 p.m., about 5 1/2 inches had been measured at National Airport, the National Weather Service's official measuring station for the area. That was the largest single accumulation since Dec. 16-17, 1973, when 10.2 inches were recorded.

Other locations received more snow yesterday.In McLean, 6 inches was measured, while Fairfax City had 8 1/2 inches. Generally, the snow fell short of predicted totals of 8 to 12 inches.

The weather service said early today that light snow probably is on the way, either late today or early tomorrow.

Forecasters said today should be partly cloudy, windy and cold with high temperatures in the 30s. The thermometer should skid into the teens tonight, forecasters said, in preparation for the possible snow.

Yesterday's snow fell so furiously during the early morning that plows could not keep up with it on many major roads. As fast as the plows cleared it, new snowfall accumulated.

In the District, transportation officials said they were slow to put plows on the roads because their private Acuweather forecast service -- the same Pennsylvania-based service that the school system relied on -- was saying as late as 8 a.m. that snow should accumulate no more than four inches and should turn to rain with above-freezing temperatures in the afternoon.

"They kept increasing the snow accumulation during the morning," said snow emergency center spokesman A1 Perkins. "So at 11 o'clock, we called out all 30 of our plows." Prior to that, only a handful of plows were on the streets, plus 88 salt and sand spreaders, Perkins said.

In the suburbs, highway officials had their own problems. Massive traffic tie-ups delayed commuters, especially those coming into the city from Virginia who were funneled into one of the five bridges spanning the Potomac River into the District. One person caught in the jam on the George Washington Memorial Parkway noted that it took two hours to get from the Capital Beltway to Key Bridge, a trip that normally can be completed in 15 minutes.

Several federal government agencies reported unusually high absenteeism. Spokesmen said absenteeism ran as high as 25 per cent at the Bureau of Standards in Gaithersburg and 22 per cent at the main Agriculture Department building downtown. The federal Office of Personnel Management reported a 12 percent absentee rate, but a spokesman for the main Commerce Department building downtown said attendance was virtually normal.

Both the federal and District governments instituted a "Condition Two" leave policy, meaning that any employes delayed in getting to work because of the weather could be granted administrative leave at the discretion of their supervisors.

Metrobuses throughout the area predictably were caught in the traffic jams, but the subway ran well and generally on time.

Metro trains, especially those on the Blue Line, were heavily loaded, apparently reflecting a decision by many car commuters to use public transit instead.

Likewise, Amtrak officials reported New York-bound trains jammed throughout the day by passengers diverted from the closed airport.

Though the traffic jams were many and the fender-bender accidents legion, no serious accidents or injuries were reported by police throughout the area.

In suburban Maryland, several owners of four-wheel drive vehicle did a brisk business pulling out stranded autos along major roads.

Bernard Purdy, 21, of Oxon Hill, said he towed eight cars at $5 each between 5 and 8 a.m.

As other commuters chugged by, Mary Clair Turnbull a medical secretary at Providence Hospital, pulled off the Capital Beltway and was lying beside her car on a blanket adjusting the chains on her rear tires.

"This is the third time I've stopped," she said resignedly. "The chains just don't seem to be tight enough... But I can handle it myself. I grew up in the country. I'm a tough Pennsylvania girl."

In Prince George's County, plowing and sanding by the county's 48 trucks and graders continued all day as the snow kept reblanketing cleared roads.

"It'd be nice if we could put an umbrella over each road so that we could prove that we did it," said Vaughn Barkdoll, acting director of public works.