No more than half a dozen storms in this century managed to cripple the nation's capital city as completely as yesterday's record-breaking snowfall.

Yesterday, the people who keep careful accounts of such things had to look back over 57 years -- back to the infamous "Knickerbocker Snow" of 1922 -- to find a comparable storm.

That January, 1922 storm was also the cause of the city's worst disaster, when the roof of the Knickerbocker Theater collapsed under the weight of some 28 inches of snow, killing 98 people and injuring 130 others.

Servicemen, firemen and police battled with the blizzard just to reach t e disaster site at the corner of 18th Street and Columbia Road NW. Saturday night dates, parents and ther children -- some still holding ice skates -- had come to the theater to forget about the weather and be entertained by Bill Haines in George M. Cohan's comedy "Get Rich Quick Wallingford."

Adding to the confusion outside, firemen pumped water into the area, which froze into a solid inch of ice over the entire intersection. Rescue work was tedious and agonizing. Workers used torches, flashlights, hammers and crowbars to help free victims.

Mechanics wielding acetylene torches were lowered into the wreckage head first in attempts to free those still alive but pinned beneath the tons of masonry and steel.

All movie houses in the city were closed by the District of Columbia government until the snow could be cleared from the roofs.

Paltry as they may seem by midwestern standards, Washington has had its share of "serious" snow storms -- about one every decade. The city accumulated 14.4 inches on February 6 and 7 in 1936.

The next formidable snowfall was March 28 and 29, 1942 when 11.5 inches blanketed the city as it was preparing for spring Another 14.4 inches paralyzed the city on February 15 and 16 in 1958.

Washington was turned into a motionless winter landscape when a foot of snow fell on January 30, 1966, adding to the 7 1/2 inches from a storm three days earlier. By the week's end, the total accumulation was 23 inches.

Even though a dozen deaths were attributed to snow and low temperatures 13 years ago, a festive smalltown air prevailed. As residents gave up on stranded cars and buses, the streets came alive with friendly pedestrians and cross-country skiers. Parents and children with toboggans and sleds in tow flocked to any stretch of land on an incline.