Blanketed by up to two feet of snow, the Washington area struggled yesterday to dig out of the paralyzing grip of one of the greatest winter storms seen here this century. The storm left public transportation all but immobilized and littered highways with abandoned cars. At least two deaths here were attributed to the weather.

With many residential streets and subdivisions still snowbound late yesterday, and no more than one lane open each way on many major arteries, authorities said they could not yet predict what schedules would be in effect Monday for public schools and federal and local government offices.

A spokesman for the federal Office of Personnel Management said no decision on federal workers' schedules would be made until Monday morning.

As the powerful storm moved northward Friday night and yesterday morning, bringing more than 20 inches of snow to Baltimore and Philadelphia and other northeastern locations, it capsized a coal-carrying freighter off the Virginia coast, leaving 24 crew members dead and nine missing. Three survivors were rescued.

The National Weather Service said yesterday that the snow total recorded at National Airport was 16.6 inches, making the storm the worst since 1979 and one of the worst since record-keeping began. Some suburban locations reported nearly two feet of snow.

Hundreds of stranded persons spent Friday night in airports, bus stations, or, like some postal workers, on mail sacks heaped near a radiator on a post office floor. In the cold and darkness, scores more were trapped for hours in their cars on traffic-snarled highways, such as Rte. I-95 near Woodbridge, where, one motorist said, women became hysterical and "I saw grown men crying."

"Everyone was running out of gas," said the motorist, Stuart Schuster. "You could only run your car to keep warm for five minutes every hour."

After she found herself at the Silver Spring Metro station Friday night with no buses or taxis in sight, "I thought I was going to die," said a 41-year-old World Bank secretary who finally found a man in a laundromat who drove her home in his truck. "He saved my life," she said.

In addition to the weather, many snowplow drivers, awake and on the streets almost constantly since the first flakes flew here Thursday night, found an enemy in fatigue.

"I don't know what the hell is keeping them awake now," said Charles Vaughn, a supervisor at the Upper Marlboro garage of the Maryland State Transportation Department.

Nevertheless, with most routine activity at a complete and snow-imposed standstill, many persons transformed Washington into a kind of once-in-a-lifetime winter carnival, replete with unusual sights and attractions.

Devoid of almost all cars, many streets became pathways for goggled cross-country skiers, sauntering, picture-snapping pedestrians, and tossers of occasional snowballs, who all contributed to what in many places appeared to be an irrepressibly high-spirited holiday atmosphere.

"Why fight nature?" asked Internal Revenue Service lawyer Lin Murphy, who, along with a friend, was gliding through North Arlington on cross-country skis yesterday. "Why not just go along with it?"

Some stores closed, while others were forced to curtail their hours. About a dozen stores and other premises were looted Friday night in Southeast Washington. Six arrests were made and no such incidents were reported yesterday, police said.

The body of one of two persons whose death was attributed to the weather was found on the Ellipse early yesterday morning by U.S. Park Police.

The man, pronounced dead at George Washington University Hospital at 3 a.m., apparently had frozen to death. He was not immediately identified.

A Springfield resident, identified as George F. Putney Jr., 61, died at Fairfax Hospital after suffering a heart attack while shoveling snow. Although a bright sun shone from blue skies and the thermometer in the city climbed above the freezing mark yesterday, silence seemed to prevail throughout much of the area, with only the clank and groan of snowplows to subsitute for the absent hum of car traffic, roar of jet planes and deep diesel growl of Metrobuses.

Missing for the entire day was the underground hum and metallic clickety-clack of Metro subway trains. The line shut down shortly after 8 p.m. Friday and did not reopen yesterday. Authorities said snow had covered the tracks on outdoor sections of the line. Both switches and the cars themselves were reported frozen.

Metro said frozen and snow-filled streets prevented bus operations. Officials said they tried to begin service this morning, but, one said, "as fast as they were out there, they were getting stuck." Limited service on a half-dozen routes began about 2 p.m. yesterday.

Officials said they would try to provide near-normal rail service today and as much bus service as possible.

At National Airport where about 150 would-be passengers had been stranded overnight in the terminal, operations were suspended until 3 p.m. yesterday.

Although skies were clear, runways were not. A Federal Aviation Administration spokesman said high wind and heavy snow kept crews from plowing effectively until 8:30 p.m. Friday.

Even hangars were used to store snow swept from runways when plowing did begin, according to FAA spokesman David Hess.

He said Dulles International Airport, where 22.8 inches of snow was measured, opened at 9 a.m. yesterday, but few landings or takeoffs were reported. One reason cited was heavy snow in New York, which closed both LaGuardia and Kennedy International Airports and thus grounded many connecting flights.

A major activity for Dulles' snow removal crews was rescuing motorists marooned in their cars Friday night on the airport access road, Hess said.

Baltimore-Washington International Airport opened about noon yesterday, for departures only, an official said. "What's on the ground we're getting out of here," he said. With snow removal continuing, he added, incoming flights would not be accepted until 7 a.m. today.

Despite delays of between 15 and 30 minutes, particularly between New York and Washington, all scheduled Amtrak trains operated yesterday and were reported "very full," said Sue Stevens, a spokesman for the passenger rail line.

She said a special train, equipped with a plow, ran over the line last night to bring food and supplies to operators of switch and signal towers, who had been at their posts since 7 a.m. Friday.

After being shut down for a time, Trailways bus service to and from Washington resumed yesterday morning. The first bus left the terminal here at 10:30 a.m., according to supervisor Frantz Marcel. He said buses were running about one half hour to 40 minutes late.

Melting snow, particularly in downtown Washington, which is generally warmer than outlying areas, helped highway crews at their work. While temperatures were expected to sink below freezing again last night, the major problem faced by snow removal crews in clearing thousands of tons of snow from area streets and highways appeared to be the hundreds of cars left behind on Friday by discouraged motorists.

At the peak of the storm, about 2,000 cars were abandoned in the District alone, according Tara Hamilton, special assistant to the city's transportation director. In Alexandria, snow removal official C. Sam Navatta put the figure as "definitely way into the hundreds."

In Prince George's County, an Emergency Preparedness Center spokesman said that at one time as many as 50 cars were immobilized in deep drifts on Walker Mill Road after minor collisions among drivers unable to stop at intersections.

In the District an official said many of the abandoned vehicles would be merely pushed aside, but in other jurisdictions plans were made to tow them away.

Many motorists, shovels in hand, returned yesterday to dig out their abandoned vehicles, authorities said, and on many residential streets, which in the city and the suburbs are traditionally the last to see a plow, snow removal became a do-it-yourself enterprise.

By 1 p.m. yesterday, after hours of dogged shoveling, residents of Ross Place NW, a dead-end street in Cleveland Park, opened a path to Macomb Street, giving access to Connecticut and Massachusetts avenues and to a hillside suitable for sledding.

While shoveling out their cars in one section of West Springfield in Fairfax County, two miles from the nearest state road, neighbors swapped guesses about when the snowplows might come, basing their estimates on memories of the colossal 1979 George Washington's Day blizzard.

That storm, which came on Feb. 18 and 19, 1979, brought an official 18.7 inches of snow to the measuring gauge at National Airport. On Jan. 25 and 26, 1922, a storm that collapsed the roof of the old Knickerbocker Theater and caused more than 60 deaths brought 25 inches of snow to Washington.

Those are the only storms more severe than the one that brought the first flakes to National Airport at 9:15 p.m. Thursday, forecasters said.

Postal service was reported spotty. In some places the mail got through, and in others it didn't, despite the efforts of such men as Pete Norris, a supervisor in Upper Marlboro who said he and his stranded men spent the night in their post office, trying to sleep on mail sacks.

Some hotels and motels lowered prices, kept restaurants open after hours, greeted unexpected guests who arrived without luggage, reservations, or, in some cases, enough cash to pay the bill. "We extended credit to them if they didn't have the money," said an official of the Quality Inn at Pentagon City.

Stuart Schuster left Richmond at 10 a.m. Friday, heading for Columbia, Md. Traffic on Rte. I-95 stopped near Woodbridge about 1:15 p.m., he said. He was stranded for seven hours. In time, about 200 people were put up for the night at a nearby firehouse.

An Annandale woman asked radio station WASH to broadcast an appeal for a four-wheel-drive vehicle to take her to her wedding.