Hundreds of commuters and tourists spent much of Friday night in stalled cars, buses, Metro stations, motels and temporary shelters after being stranded by the worst snowstorm to hit the Washington area in four years.

The largest number of people were stranded in the Woodbridge area, where three temporary shelters were set up for motorists unable to travel on Interstate 95. No serious injuries were reported, but for many the experience was harrowing.

Leela Gnanasundran, 41, a secretary at the World Bank, thought Friday night might be her last.

"I thought I was going to die," she said yesterday. "I thought I was freezing to death.

After leaving work Friday at 2 p.m., Gnanasundran boarded a Metro train to go home to Takoma Park. At Metro Center she was transferred to a bus and from there was taken to the Silver Spring station, at dark.

"There were no Ride-Ons, no taxis," said Gnanasundran, a native of India who has lived in the U.S. for 17 years.

"I tried to hail so many cars and trucks going by. Several police cars passed me by. No one would stop on Georgia Avenue. It was such a heartless place. I never had an experience like that. I saw America at its worst."

At a laundromat, she found a Bladensburg man with a truck. "I told him I'd give him $20 to drop me off in Takoma Park. He didn't want to take my money, but he was unemployed and had five children. He saved my life."

Motorists driving on I-95 between Washington and Richmond Friday afternoon were trapped in stalled traffic for up to eight hours. Many ended up spending the night in temporary shelters.

"I saw grown men crying," said Stuart Schuster, a Columbia businessman who was among those caught in the traffic while returning home after a trip to Richmond. "Women were hysterical. Everyone was running out of gas. You could only run your car to keep warm for five minutes every half hour to save gas. I kept trying to keep my son and business associate from falling asleep, because I feared they'd get hypothermia."

Schuster was particularly upset about the lack of emergency assistance for the stranded motorists. "Not one policeman came by to see if you were dead or alive," he said. ". . . approximately 15 minutes before we left, two men walked by and said they lived nearby and would make emergency calls for us.

"When we finally got to Route One, we drove by Fort Belvoir and saw the soldiers playing in the snow like children. I think it's appalling, even with all the demands, there wasn't someone to give assistance to the hundreds of us."

Virginia officials reported that Fort Belvoir sent four-wheel drive vehicles to Alexandria and Arlington's fire and police departments. Paul Rogers, chief of the Occoquan-Woodbridge-Lorton fire station, said his department, along with state police, found at least 30 people along Interstate 95 who had been stranded for "seven or eight hours." Most were stranded south of Dale City and were taken to the Dumfries truck weighing station for shelter.

Farther north, some 500 to 600 stranded motorists were housed in everything from motels to fire stations to Saunders Middle School in Woodbridge, according to Lt. Wayne Ayers of the Prince William County sheriff's department. The stranded motorists included three tour buses, two of them filled with elderly tourists. Blankets were supplied by the Quantico Marine Base and National Guard units and private citizens with four-wheel drive vehicles transported the stranded people.

A temporary shelter was set up for 150 people in Woodbridge by the Virginia State Office of Emergency and Energy Services.

Another 220 motorists--most of them stranded on I-95--were given overnight shelter in the social hall of the Occoquan-Woodbridge-Lorton Fire Station. Some were in tears when they arrived, but the mood was transformed after they were entertained by videotapes of "An Officer and a Gentlemen," "Blazing Saddles" and "Alice in Wonderland." The Red Cross brought sleeping bags and cots and in an unexpected bonus, three drivers pulling trailers from Richfoods, an Atlanta wholesaler, were stuck nearby and donated food from the back of their trucks.

About 3 a.m. yesterday, Maryland State Police in Glen Burnie rescued six people stranded in a station wagon on the Baltimore Washington Parkway just south of the Baltimore County line. "We were parked for about two hours, no heat and soaking wet feet," said Russell Lamendola of Long Island, N.Y., who was traveling to Florida with John Wulff and his four children.

Arlington was prepared to open up schools and recreation centers for temporary housing, but by the time four-wheel drive vehicles got to the 30 or so people who requested help, most were not there, according to Arlington Police Capt. John Bassett.

Elsewhere, people found a variety of ways of coping.

Nurses and staff at Georgetown University Hospital, among others, camped out on mattresses in conference rooms and slept in empty patient beds. "We're going crazy trying to get doctors and nurses into the hospital," said Gene Berridge, the night administrator, who said the Rockville Jaycees and Potomac Rotary Club members helped by supplying four-wheel-drive vehicles and drivers.

The Quality Inn in Silver Spring dropped its rates Friday and Saturday night from $40 to $27 to help the dozens of people stranded at the nearby Metro stop and for employes of the Heidi Bakery, the Silver Spring post office and the police station. Because the restaurant staff could not make it to work, the assistant manager and two desk clerks made sandwiches and coffee. "We had one young woman walk in from her stalled car on New Hampshire and East-West Highway, about a four-mile hike," said Mark Nash, a desk clerk.

Motel managers throughout the area juggled rooms, extended restaurant hours and helped sort out the problems of the stranded. "We had people in the lobby trying to get warm," said Sid Levov, an employe of the Twin-Towers motel in Silver Spring. "People who checked out couldn't fly out of National and checked back in, making us jockey all the rooms around. It's been utter chaos."

Five employes of Upper Marlboro Post office slept on mail sacks piled on the post office's wooden floor. "Because we couldn't deliver all the mail yesterday, we had to bring it back," said Pete Norris, supervisor. "With all those newspapers and magazines, they were well entertained."

Shelters for the homeless did not turn their occupants outside yesterday, as is customary each morning. "It's just too cold," said Father Henry Mead, a Jesuit volunteer at the Calvert Shelter in downtown Washington.