Ground zero

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For other uses, see Ground zero (disambiguation).

In terms of nuclear explosions and other large bombs, the term "ground zero" (sometimes also known as "surface zero"[1]) describes the point on the Earth's surface closest to a detonation.[2] In the case of an explosion above the ground, ground zero refers to the point on the ground directly below the nuclear detonation and is sometimes called the hypocenter (from Greek ὑπο- "under-" and center). Generally, it is also used in relation to earthquakes, epidemics, and other disasters to mark the point of the most severe damage or destruction. The term is distinguished from the term zero point in that the latter can also be located in the air, underground, or underwater.[3]

Pearl Harbor[edit]

USS Arizona exploded seconds after the bomb hit Turret II of the ship towards the forward ammunition compartment.

On December 7, 1941, the Empire of Japan carried out a "surprise attack" on Pearl Harbor, the headquarters of the United States Pacific Fleet in Honolulu, Hawaii. At the time of the attack, the U.S. and Japan were not officially at war and were still negotiating for a possible peace treaty. The event was described as ground zero due to the catastrophic damage inflicted upon the fleet and facilities within the naval base and other areas, as well as the nature surrounding the attack. The attack started at 7:55 am with 353 Japanese planes and lasted for 110 minutes. The most famous example of ground zero was Turret II of the USS Arizona, when an armor-piercing bomb penetrated through that turret towards the forward ammunition compartment which blew the ship apart and sunk it within seconds, killing 1,177 out of the 1,512 people on board. Hickam Field was also described as ground zero due to the devastation the Japanese caused to the airfield, killing 189 people and destroying many aircraft on the ground. In total, 2,467 people were killed in the attack, including 2,403 victims and 64 attackers, and eight battleships and 217 aircraft (including 19 from the attackers) were destroyed, making it the largest peacetime loss of life and property on American soil.[4]

On December 8, the day after the attack, Japan declared war on the United States and the United States declared war on Japan in return the same day, thus drawing the United States into World War II and turning the Allied tide against the Axis powers in the war.

Trinity, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki[edit]

In mapping the effects of an atomic bomb, such as on the city of Hiroshima here, concentric circles are drawn centered on the point below the detonation and numbered at radial distances of 1,000 feet (305 meters). This point below the detonation is called "Ground Zero".

The origins of the term "ground zero" began with the Trinity test in Jornada del Muerto desert near Socorro, New Mexico, and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan. The Strategic Bombing Survey of the atomic attacks, released in June 1946, used the term liberally, defining it as: "For convenience, the term 'ground zero' will be used to designate the point on the ground directly beneath the point of detonation, or 'air zero.'"[5] William Laurence, an embedded reporter with the Manhattan Project, reported that "Zero" was "the code name given to the spot chosen for the [Trinity] test" in 1945.[6]

The Oxford English Dictionary, citing the use of the term in a 1946 New York Times report on the destroyed city of Hiroshima, defines ground zero as "that part of the ground situated immediately under an exploding bomb, especially an atomic one." The term was military slang, used at the Trinity site where the weapon tower for the first nuclear weapon was at "point zero", and moved into general use very shortly after the end of World War II. At Hiroshima, the hypocenter of the attack was Shima Hospital.

Panoramic view of the monument marking the hypocenter, or ground zero, of the atomic bomb explosion over Nagasaki.

The Pentagon[edit]

Cafe Ground Zero in the Pentagon's center courtyard.

The Pentagon, the headquarters of the United States Department of Defense in Arlington County, Virginia, was thought of as the most likely target of a nuclear strike during the Cold War.

During the September 11 attacks, when the Pentagon was hit by American Airlines Flight 77 commandeered by five Al-Qaeda hijackers, the east-side of the building was under renovations, so that part of the building was empty during the attack. The strike on the Pentagon killed 70 civilians and 55 military personnel in the building, as well as the 59 civilians and the five hijackers on board the aircraft. Part of the renovations was to add reinforcers to the concrete walls and to add blast proof windows and walls. Because some of this renovation work was already completed, it saved hundreds of lives.[7]

The open space in the center of the Pentagon is informally known as ground zero, and a snack bar located at the center of this plaza was nicknamed "Cafe Ground Zero".[8]

World Trade Center[edit]

Underground damage days after the 1993 bombing of the garage underneath the North Tower of the World Trade Center.
The World Trade Center site, as it appeared in October 2004.
Aerial view of the World Trade Center site, as it appeared in September 2001.

On February 26, 1993, Al-Qaeda terrorists attacked the World Trade Center in New York City by detonating a car bomb underneath the garage of the North Tower, hoping to topple the North Tower over to the South Tower, and thus killing thousands of people. However, the tower complex withstood but despite this, six civilians were killed and 919 others, 88 firefighters, and 35 police officers injured. The damage to the garage of the World Trade Center's North Tower was so extensive that the U.S. television docudrama The FBI Files' Season I of Episode 11 (which aired on February 9, 1999, about the 1993 World Trade Center bombing) used the term "Ground Zero".[9]

During the September 11, 2001, attacks, American Airlines Flight 11 and United Airlines Flight 175, hijacked by 10 Al-Qaeda terrorists, flew into the North and South Towers, respectively, causing massive damage to both towers on impact. The collisions started fires that caused the weakened 110-story skyscrapers to collapse, killing all 147 civilians and 10 hijackers on board the two aircraft, as well as 2,192 civilians, 343 firefighters, and 71 law enforcement officers in and within the vicinity of the towers. Since the attacks, especially in the United States and the media, "Ground Zero" is generally understood to mean the World Trade Center site. The phrase was being applied to the site within hours after the towers collapsed. It appears that the first use of the term on a mainstream North American media outlet in reference to the September 11 attacks was at approximately 11:55 am when an eye witness who claimed to be a Fox News freelancer referred twice to ground zero. He may also have been the first person to suggest the cause of the collapse of the towers was due to "structural failure due to fires".[10] At 4:41 p.m., in an interview with Peter Jennings on ABC News, attorney and survivor of the attacks Tom Humphreys (spelled "Humphries" on air) said, in reference to the collapse of the South Tower, that

The next known reference occurred at 7:47 p.m. (EDT) on that day, when CBS News reporter Jim Axelrod said:

The term "Ground Zero" was simultaneously used by NBC News reporter Rehema Ellis when her own report[13] was aired on NBC at around the same time as Jim Axelrod's report on CBS News. She said:

Rescue workers also used the phrase "The Pile", referring to the pile of rubble that was left after the buildings collapsed.[14] Even years later, the term "Ground zero" has become a shorthand for the site, even after construction on the new One World Trade Center and the National September 11 Memorial & Museum were well under way. A controversial planned Islamic cultural center that was to have been built several blocks from the former World Trade Center site was criticized by opponents seeing to stop the project as the "Ground Zero mosque." In advance of the 10th anniversary of the attacks, New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg urged that the "Ground zero" moniker be retired, saying, "... the time has come to call those 16 acres what they are: The World Trade Center and the National September 11th Memorial and Museum."[15] Ground Zero, in New York City, now has a memorial and underground museum to remember this day in history and the people that lost their lives. There are two reflecting pools located where the Twin Towers once stood. Engraved around the edges of these pools are the names of the 2,983 victims who were killed in the September 11 attacks and the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. The underground museum will display exhibits of the stories from victims, witnesses, and responders on this day.[16]


  1. ^ Military Dictionary - Terms Defined "Surface Zero"
  2. ^ Nuclear Matters: A Practical Guide, Appendix B
  3. ^ Military. Dictionary - Terms Defined "Zero Point"
  4. ^ Prange, Gordon W.; Goldstein, Donald M.; Dillon, Katherine V. (1991). At Dawn We Slept: The Untold Story of Pearl Harbor. New York: Penguin Books. p. 657. ISBN 9780140157345. 
  5. ^ U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey: The Effects of the Atomic Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. June 19, 1946. President's Secretary's File, Truman Papers. Page 5.
  6. ^ William L. Laurence, Dawn over Zero (London: Museum Press, 1947), 4.
  7. ^ Maranzani, Barbara. "9 Things You May Not Know About the Pentagon". History Channel. History Channel. Retrieved 2015-02-15. 
  8. ^ "Pentagon Hot Dog Stand, Cold War Legend, to be Torn Down". United States Department of Defense. September 20, 2006. Retrieved 2010-05-06. 'It's rumored that a portion of their (Soviet) nuclear arsenal was directed at that building, the Pentagon hot dog stand,' tour guides tell visitors as they pass the stand. 'This is where the building earned the nickname Cafe Ground Zero, the deadliest hot dog stand in the world.' 
  9. ^ The FBI Files: Season 1, Episode 11, 1993 World Trade Center Bombing (uploaded to Dailymotion by Billyjones2k14 on July 3, 2014). February 9, 1999. (11:11-11:32) "Gradually, the searches got close to the origin of the blast, known as "Ground Zero". The damage was so extensive that there was no conclusive evidence that pointed to the cause of the explosion. The floors were completely blown away, leaving a five story crater which extended through the cavity of the building. 
  10. ^ FOX News - Rick Leventhal interviews 9/11 WTC witness, Mark "Harley Guy" Walsh (uploaded to YouTube by YouTube user Gideon52480 on November 23, 2010). Fox news. 11 September 2001. Retrieved 11 September 2011. (1:31-1:38)...then I witnessed both towers collapse, first one then the second, mostly due to structural failure because the fire was just too intense... (1:45-1:50)...those guys were all right there at ground zero when those things went down... 
  11. ^ September 11 Television Archive
  12. ^ CBS 9, Washington, D.C., at Internet Archive's September 11 Television Archive. Kathleen Matthews, of WJLA, Washington, D.C. said at 7:02 p.m. EDT, "Ground Zero for the terrorist attack here in the Washington area is of course The Pentagon." September 11 Television Archive.
  13. ^ Rehema Ellis's report on NBC using the term "Ground Zero" at the Internet Archive
  14. ^ Hamill, Denis (16 September 2001). "Rescue Workers Keep Up Quest for Signs of Life Ruin All Over, But Not One Unkind Word". Daily News (New York). 
  15. ^ Geoghegan, Tom (2011-09-07). "Is it time to retire 'Ground zero'?". BBC. Retrieved 2011-09-10. 
  16. ^ Kirszner (2010). Patterns for College Writing (11th ed.). St. Martins: BedFord. p. 167. ISBN 978-0-312-60152-2.