A winter tempest delivering more than a foot of snow with winds up to 35 miles per hour virtually shut down the Washington area yesterday, closing airports and schools, icing roads, knocking out power and keeping hundreds of thousands of people at home.

The storm, the worst here since February 1979, lashed at the area through the day. At least 23 inches had fallen at Dulles International Airport by last night, while National recorded 17 inches with drifts up to four feet. Richmond was covered with 16 inches, making it the worst storm there in 43 years.

The heavy snowfall began tapering off late last night and was expected to end early today. Flurries and temperatures in the 20s were forecast for the Washington area today.

The mess was compounded when the federal government called its employes to work but then gave up hope that the storm would abate by afternoon rush hour and sent them home at midday, causing a massive traffic jam on highways and bridges into Northern Virginia. By late afternoon, traffic was standing bumper-to-bumper on Shirley Highway between the city and Seminary Road, police said.

Late last night Virginia state police said they were still trying to clear abandoned vehicles from the road so it could be plowed. They also said northbound traffic on Rte. 95 between Quantico and Woodbridge was almost halted, and an effort was being made to send National Guard vehicles to the relief of stranded motorists.

Hundreds of abandoned cars and trucks still littered local streets and highways at midnight, and police in all area jurisdictions said they would soon begin towing them away so that plows and essential vehicles could get through.

Officials in Alexandria asked that all motor travel in the city be restricted for the next two days to emergency service vehicles and road clearing crews. Washington area hospitals broadcast appeals throughout the night for persons with four-wheel drive vehicles to help bring their staffs to work.

Metro buses and trains continued to run for much of the day, but suffered snarls and delays as road crews fought a losing battle with the storm. By late afternoon above-ground segments of Metro rail lines, overwhelmed by the snow, began to close, and the entire rail system shut down by 8 p.m.

Metro officials said all subway lines will remain shut down today.

Downtown hotels reported that hundreds of their rooms were occupied by people stranded by the storm. Spokesmen for the Capitol Hilton estimated that they had rented 250 additional rooms because of the storm, and an official of Loew's L'Enfant Plaza hotel said the weather accounted for about half the guests who filled most of the hotel's 372 rooms. At the Mayflower about 85 percent of the guests either took rooms last night or extended their original stays because of the snow, an official said.

Many commuters stayed off the roads, apparently heeding forecasts of the storm, and the usual morning traffic never materialized. Authorities around the area reported numerous minor accidents, but no deaths or serious injuries were attributed to the weather, according to hospital officials.

Air travelers were stranded at terminals because airport crews could not see through the blowing snow to plow it from the runways. Amtrak reported that its trains were running on schedule early yesterday, but that by evening all were one to two hours late.

National Airport closed at 9:15 a.m., Baltimore-Washington International Airport at 10:18 a.m., and Dulles at 11 a.m. Officials at all three airports said they hope to have them back in service today.

Greyhound and Trailways buses stopped operating in or out of Washington. Both lines will attempt to resume operations today, spokesmen said.

The storm sent shoppers scurrying to supermarkets, where they waited in long lines to stock up for the weekend. University classes were canceled, school children given the day off. Performances at the Kennedy Center and some other theaters were called off, as many area residents settled in for a long weekend at home. A sold-out rock concert at the University of Maryland was postponed until Sunday night.

Some power outages were reported in the Virginia and Maryland suburbs. Officials in the city and surrounding jurisdictions kept plows on the roads throughout the storm, but motorists were mired on major arteries as the snow continued to pile up.

"We're going to have a whole lot of trouble before this is over," said one Northern Virginia highway engineer, "especially if the wind keeps up."

The storm swept up the Eastern Seaboard, blasting an area from North Carolina to New York. At least 30,000 homes lost power in Charleston, W. Va., while up to 20 inches of snow fell in northeastern North Carolina. Winds up to 40 mph lashed Philadelphia.

National Weather Service forecasters, who'd been tracking the storm from the Gulf of Mexico since Wednesday, called it a "classic example" of the worst kind of East Coast winter blast.

Moist air from a low-pressure system in the Gulf collided over the Carolinas with frigid air from the Midwest. Snow began to fall around midday Thursday in Lynchburg, arrived at National Airport at 9:15 p.m. Thursday, and blanketed an area as far west as the Ohio River by yesterday morning, when the storm's center moved over the Chesapeake Bay.

Four inches had fallen in the city by 7 a.m. But the storm intensified through the morning and accumulated in some areas at a rate of three inches an hour.

The last such storm to hit Washington was in February 1979, when the city came to a standstill under 18.7 inches of snow. With 17 inches at National Airport late last night and snow still falling lightly, there was a chance that that total could be topped. That would make the storm the worst since 1922, when the area was blanketed with 24 inches of snow.

School officials throughout the area canceled classes yesterday morning, before the worst of the storm had arrived. Some local government agencies attempted to remain open. But government employes in the District, suburban Maryland and Northern Virginia were released as many roads grew impassible.

"Our tow trucks are getting stuck. Some of our plows can't even move," said Gary Wendt, chief of D.C. traffic operations. "It's pretty tough out there unless you're an expert driver and have four-wheel drive."

Federal officials decided around 5 a.m. to call in their 325,000 workers after considering forecasts from the weather service and Metro. Between 15 and 35 percent of the work force showed up. But Metro later said it could not guarantee service for rush hour, according to Office of Personnel Management spokesman Patrick S. Korten, and officials sent the workers home in staggered shifts beginning around 11 a.m.

Kenneth T. Blaylock, president of the American Federation of Goverment Employees, criticized the decision to call employes in at all, saying the action placed workers' lives in danger. "Although we, too, are Redskins fans," he said in a statement, "we find it ridiculous that the government found the money to bend its leave policies for a football parade but cannot take similar action in a time of emergency."

"We made our best judgment. There's no doubting the fact that it was a close call," Korten said. "It was obvious that we couldn't leave employes in town in a situation where they wouldn't be able to use mass transit to get home."

Those who did attempt to travel using Metro reported long waits for buses in some areas. Subways were packed with riders at noon, and all surface rail liones were closed by 5 p.m.

Police reported hazardous driving conditions on highways throughout Virginia and Maryland. Among the more serious incidents reported yesterday, a truck carrying drums of a toxic chemical overturned on a winding road in rural Virginia. State troopers said no public danger was posed and the driver escaped uninjured.

The Salvation Army issued a plea for gloves, blankets and men's shoes for its clients. The city's three shelters for men were filled to capacity and planned to stay open 24 hours. One soup kitchen was searching for a four-wheel drive vehicle to deliver sandwiches to street people.

In Prince George's County, police reported looting by a small group at the Capitol Plaza Shopping Center in Lanham, where stores were closed at 2 p.m. A man fired four shots at a police officer on the scene. The officer was unharmed and the man was arrested, authorities said. There were also some reports of scattered looting late last night along Martin Luther King Avenue SE, but these could not be confirmed.

About 4:30 p.m. the roof of an office building at 4815 Edmonston Rd. in Bladensburg collapsed from the weight of the snow, according to fire officials. Rescue workers were searching the destroyed second floor late yesterday, but believed there was no one inside.

About 2,000 North Arlington residents were briefly without power when snow caused a shortcircuit in a transformer. Power to about 1,000 homes in Bowie was cut off for several hours yesterday morning because of a defective circuit breaker.

Officials at C&P Telephone advised area customers not to use phones except in emergencies to avoid tying up lines.