When Paul Collins heard that silver prices had plunged, he didn't waste any time.

"I got a few thousand dollars together and came down to buy as much silver as I could get," he said yesterday.

But Collins, who normally operates a produce stand in Lanham, was too late. By the time he arrived with his sister-in-law, Angela Cordova, at Deak-Perera, the silver and gold dealer at 18th and K streets in downtown Washington, officials there had stopped silver trading for the day.

"The market was too volatile," said Michael Checkan, vice president of Deak-Perera.

When the trading was stopped, the posted price in the window for an ounce of silver was $10.80 -- roughly one-fifth of the price on Jan. 21 when silver prices peaked.

Paul Collins wasn't the only one who rushed out to buy silver yesterday. Coin shops and silver dealers throughout the Washington metropolitan area reported an increase in the number of telephone calls from customers seeking information on prices and supplies.

"We found our retail business increased quite a bit," said a salesman at the Maryland Coin Exchange in Silver Spring.

Alexandria Coin Sales Inc. sold out of silver coins at one point during the day, according to Joe Gallo, the coin manager. The shop quickly bought more, he said.

The Arlington Coin Center also recorded an increase in telephone inquiries. "Every time it hits the news, people get panicky," said Charles Klein, who works at the center.

At Deak-Perera, telephone lines were jammed with callers excited at the prospect of buying silver at low prices and with callers worried that they may lose money on their investment.

The drama wasn't all confined to the telephone, however.

Gloria Noon had left her office in the International Club Building to run an errand when she saw a diminutive woman staring at the silver price posted in the Deak-Perera window.

"Oh, my God!" the woman exclaimed.

Noon paused and asked what was wrong.

"It's terrible . . . it terrible," the woman said repeatedly.

Finally the story came out. The woman, a platinum blonde with a Latin accent, had been walking quietly along K street when she noticed the Deak price sign.

Two months ago, she paid $47 an ounce when she bought a silver certificate. Now it was $10.80 an ounce.

"What happened?" the woman asked. She turned away and walked inside to repeat her question. "What happened?"