"The Frozen Area" was the name given immediately after the attack on the World Trade Center to the area below Houston Street in New York. The area was sealed off to all traffic but rescue vehicles and visiting officials. There were multiple layers of barricades set up from 14th Street on down, and in order to get you had to stop at checkpoints and show that you lived or worked there. After you passed several police checkpoints you started running into heavily armed National Guard forces, and could be asked for identification at any moment. Many of them wore body armor and some of them wore gas masks, because no one really knew what was going on and what else might happen. There were automatic weapons in the hands of many of them, although I can no longer remember if there were tanks or not. Many people were unable to get back to their apartments to feed pets or look after the infirm, and I think in some cases it was several days before the rules relaxed sufficiently that such people could get in.
I did not live or work within the Frozen Area, but on the morning of September 12th I managed to get through or around the various checkpoints because someone advised me to get down to Beekman Hospital to try to be of use. That is a story I have told briefly elsewhere and may some day tell more fully. But because I was there, I can describe it as a witness rather than from hearsay.
The Frozen Area was extremely quiet. There was no traffic except for the occasional rescue vehicle coming up or downtown, and only a few avenues were in use for that purpose. Complete silence in Manhattan is quite unusual, even at night. So it was eery. I think the only other morning I have ever heard so little sound was after the great snowstorm in 1982-83. But that was a beautiful silence, whereas this was a horror. And in that silent place you could hear the F-16s zooming overhead, and that sound stayed in my ears for months afterwards. It was five months before I could hear the sound of a jet without having to stop and wait till it passed. Probably it was the silence of the Frozen Area that sensitized me so.
The Frozen Area smelled of smoke. Much of the city smelled of smoke for weeks after the attack, and even a month or two later you sometimes smelled smoke blowing up through the subway - as far up as 116th Street. But that first morning the smell was fresh and strong. A lot of people were wearing dust masks, and I eventually got one from a friendly cop. In later months there began to be a lot of talk about toxins in the air, but on that first morning people were mainly thinking about smoke and dust particles.
The Frozen Area had a lot of grit underfoot, especially south of Canal Street, where very few interlopers were being allowed to go. In the silence, you could hear yourself tramping along. A cell phone would go off a few blocks away and you could hear it. People generally spoke softly, but you could hear them at some distance, too. As you continued south the grit was supplemented by a dusty dirty white powder like plaster of paris. It was softer underfoot, and that made things quieter as you went further downtown. There were conflicting explanations about what that powder was. Some people said it was burned sheetrock. Some people said it was asbestos. Some people said it was the mixed ash of everything that had been in the Trade Center - including paper, furniture, and people. Probably everyone was partially right, but I think there must have been a great deal of sheetrock ash. There was water on the ground, and the water mixed with that powder to form a white mud that was fearsome to look at. It hardened on my sandals and some of it was still there when they wore out many months later. Around City Hall I started to notice a lot of paper, some of it singed. There was much less than I would have expected, but I heard that a great deal of what came down the first day landed in Brooklyn and the East River.
Telephones were not working, although some stores I passed between the Canal/Lafayette intersection and Canal Street were open and had power. Credit card machines were not working, and shopkeepers were not being too careful about giving or asking exact change. Phone service remained in very bad shape for months after the attack, although I was able to use my Verizon cell phone without difficulty everywhere I went that first morning.
The name "Ground Zero" for the World Trade Center site itself was well publicized in the media, and I think everyone knows it. For some reason the name "Frozen Area" did not catch on as well. But its existence as a special area was certainly not limited to the week after the attacks. Today, a year later, I still know people who have not moved back because lower Manhattan has not fully recovered from the damage to its infrastructure. The subways and commuter trains are not restored yet, and I understand there are still some problems with the phones. And of course many businesses have folded - the City declared the area south of Houston a tax-free zone until some time in July. I have been back to tread those beloved streets many times in the past year, and as I have written elsewhere I feel healed from what I have been through and grateful for the experience. The streets now feel the same to me as they did before, except for that horrific hole in the skyline where certain buildings used to be. But when I resurrect for myself the silence and the sensation of the things underfoot, that is when I know there are still shudders lurking in my spine that have not yet been summoned out.