Numbing cold and frigid winds plunged the Washington area into a deepfreeze yesterday, knocking out electrical power to thousands of homes, stranding droves of motorists whose cars went dead and breaking records for temperature and energy use.

Temperatures plunged to as low as 5 degrees early yesterday, with northwest winds gusting up to 32 miles per hour, creating a wind-chill effect as low as minus 37 degrees, according to the National Weather Service. Yesterday's high of only 15 degrees became the coldest high temperature ever recorded for a Jan. 10, breaking a record for that date set in 1893, when the temperature climbed only to 16.

Warring weather fronts in distant parts of Canada accounted for most of the discomfort here yesterday, according to a weather service spokesman. A high-pressure Arctic air mass in northern Alberta was moving southeast, bringing it toward collision with a low-pressure center below Hudson Bay in eastern Canada and creating a swirl of frigid wind, the spokesman said.

Temperatures were expected to dip below zero last night, and more icy weather is predicted through Wednesday.

Metro officials announced last night that they would keep Metrorail's 250 cars moving intermittently through the night--without passengers--to keep machinery on the rail cars from freezing before morning rush-hour. Metro spokesman Cody Pfanstiehl said it was the first time Metro has taken the preventive measure.

Layered clothing, woolen caps, and heavy gloves were the uniform for many of those hearty enough to venture out yesterday. But none of that was of much help to people like Jimmy Tucker, 35, of Greenbelt, who was among an eight-man Teamsters crew that had to scale a 12-story office building yesterday at 1101 17th St. NW in fierce cold winds. The task was to replace two 13,000-pound air-conditioning units, using a 90-ton crane. "You get numb so fast you don't feel it after a while," said Tucker.

Layered clothes did help Boyce Sawyer, 76, who said he is an Alabama migrant worker with $8 to his name. Sawyer said he has spent much of the past six weeks atop a heating vent outside the 15th street NW face of the Department of Commerce building. He's spent some time in city shelters, he said, but was not sure where he would spend the night. Sawyer said the steam from the heating grate and his several old sweaters and coat kept him "pretty warm . . . except for my hands."

Washington's shelters for the homeless and the poor were operating near capacity yesterday, in some cases staying open beyond their normal hours and offering extra meals for hundreds of destitute persons seeking refuge from biting winds.

Washington Gas Light Co. reported late yesterday that its 550,000 customers were on the verge of setting an all-time record for natural gas use in a day. Company spokesman Paul Young said that yesterday's use would approach one billion cubic feet, surpassing the seasonal daily average of 650 million, this season's high of 834 million, and the previous Washington Gas record of 904 million set on Jan. 17, 1977.

In the District, hundreds of homes and apartment buildings were without heat for varying periods yesterday, according to Mayor Marion Barry's emergency command post, which had logged more than 250 no-heat calls by midday.

More than 10,000 homes in Bowie, Lanham, Seabrook and surrounding areas lost power for up to three hours yesterday morning when a guy wire anchoring a utility pole was uprooted at 8:20 a.m. near the intersection of Rts. 450 and 197, according to Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. In Prince George's County, Potomac Electric Power Co. reported a downed tree limb knocked out power for about 750 homes in the Largo and Marlboro Road area. About 2,000 customers were powerless in and around Montgomery Village in Gaithersburg for up to six hours, and Pepco asked customers there to reduce energy use until permanent repairs are made.

In Fairfax and Reston, more than 4,000 customers of Virginia Electric and Power Co. lost electricity when a tree limb crashed through a power line on Lawyers Road, knocking out two Vepco circuits that each serve several thousand homes. A Vepco spokesman also reported scattered outages hitting several hundred homes throughout Northern Virginia.

Large numbers of motorists throughout the area heard the unwelcome sound of wheezing car engines that wouldn't turn over in the intense cold. The American Automobile Association had such a backlog of road-service calls that AAA members had to wait more than two hours for help.

In Montgomery County, a 57-year-old Gaithersburg motorist died early yesterday after his car plunged into an icy pond off Montgomery Village Avenue in Gaithersburg late Saturday night. Frigid water hampered the rescue effort and firefighters were forced to use an 85-foot telescope bucket and a ladder to attach a line to the car and pull it out of the pond. The victim, Donald L. Miller of 17226 King James Way was pronounced dead at Shady Grove Adventist Hospital.

In upper Montgomery County, six unidentified campers were rescued from a small island in the Potomac near Sycamore Landing, according to the Upper Montgomergy County Volunteer Fire Department. The campers ventured out in a small boat, but were unable to return because the river was icing up, a spokesman said.

Washington Post staff writer Ronald D. White contributed to this report.