The atmosphere may approach new levels of discomfort this afternoon, but it appears that a cooling front is on the way to snuff out the season's first heat wave.

Yesterday's official high in Philadelphia was 97, just one degree shy of the record set in 1933. Unofficially, it was certifiably hot, a day for slurred thoughts and slow movements, a day to seek air-conditioning and serious hydrotherapy.

"I don't want to leave," said Monique Benitez, 23, of Northeast Philadelphia, her clothing pleasantly dampened from the spray of the fountain in Logan Square, where she had brought her 2-year-old daughter yesterday.

Air-conditioned-challenged schools all over the region, including those in Philadelphia and Camden, closed early, and area hospitals reported treating several people for heat-related problems caused by the hot spell that began on Saturday.

But no heat-related deaths were reported, and health experts say this heat wave could toughen up the population in advance of hot days later this summer.

Typically, deaths increase only after three or four consecutive hot days and extremely warm nights. This heat wave evidently will end just short of the danger threshold.

Even yesterday, the heat index failed to reach extreme levels. Dry air generated by thunderstorms well to the north of the region tempered the humidity, said Gary Szatkowski, the meteorologist in charge of the National Weather Service office in Mount Holly.

The heat wave could break dramatically this evening, when potent thunderstorms are possible, he said. Ahead of the cold front, however, one last plume of water vapor could turn the air to soup this afternoon as the temperature makes a run at the record of 97, set in 1964.

The heat has caused some problems. At Delaware County Memorial Hospital in Drexel Hill, four people have been admitted because of heat-related health problems. Crozer-Chester Medical Center in Upland, has reported a 20 percent increase in patient volume the past few days, mostly due to complaints by cardiac patients.

Sunday and yesterday, about 10 patients showed up at the Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital emergency room in Camden with heat-related problems.

"Today we saw two very ill young people because they were exercising outside without proper hydration," said Russell Harris, an emergency physician at Lourdes. "So, no, the word hasn't gotten out. What surprises me is that we're seeing people who should know better."

Otherwise, the first dose of heat should help inoculate the general population against heat stresses in subsequent hot spells, said James L. Dean, medical director of the Philadelphia's Public Health Department.

But it's unclear how much it will help the city's heat-endangered elderly and infirm. "In our most vulnerable population, they may never get to the point where they can acclimate," he said.

Most of the heat-related problems were of the discomfort and nuisance variety.

At Carlino's, a specialty food shop in West Chester, owner Pat Carlino had heat-related headaches on his hands. First, he had to deal with a broken refrigeration compressor, and then the battery quit on a delivery truck.

Carlino says the heat takes a toll on his cooling equipment because customers obviously want cooler fare like salads. "Nobody wants anything warm when it's this hot," he said.

For the most part, however, the region appeared to be coping with the heat quite nicely, considering it was the first blast of the season.

At the Upper Darby Community Complex and Senior Center, Al Brooks, 81, of Essington, and his friend Wayne Smith, 79, were reminiscing about life before air-conditioning. And not liking it.

"I don't know how we even did it, really," Brooks said during a game of pinochle with a few other card sharks from the center. "We didn't know it was hot," said Smith. "We didn't even think about it, we really didn't."

In Bucks County, 100 or so folks showed up for lunch at the air-conditioned Benjamin H. Wilson Senior Center in Warminster - but they didn't stay long.

"I looked in the dining room 20 minutes after lunch ended, and there were only three people left," said David Ralston, a former manager of the center who still works there part-time.

"I guess they couldn't wait to get back out in the heat."

A Quakertown carpenter says he has found an effective way to combat stifling temperatures on the job: practice.

That's why John Lacava, 47, says he forgoes air-conditioning during his daily commute to Tredyffrin Township, where he works building concrete forms for the Cedar Hollow Road Bridge over Route 202.

Lacava was one of about a dozen Road-Con Inc. workers sizzling at the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation site yesterday.

"You don't want to get used to cooler temperatures, or you won't be able to stand it out here," he said.

His brother, Dan Lacava, 45, the site's superintendent, had a different view: "He's too cheap to fix it."

Contact staff writer Tony Wood at 610-313-8210 or twood@phillynews.com.
Contributing to this report were Inquirer staff writers Kia Gregory, Dan Hardy, Larry King, Karen Langley, Marie McCullough, Nick Pipitone and Kathleen Brady Shea.