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Polishing their names as a way to honor the dead of 9/11

National September 11th Memorial & Museum maintenance worker

National September 11 Memorial & Museum maintenance worker Jerry Mena, whose job is to polish and clean the engraved names on the panels above the memorial's reflecting pools, discussed his job as the memorial caretaker on Friday. Credit: Craig Ruttle

An aura of silence surrounds Jerry Mena as his hands gently polish the brass panels with engraved names of those killed in the 1993 and 2001 terrorist attacks.

Mena is their caretaker. He is one of 30 maintenance workers at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in lower Manhattan who preserves this last tribute to the nearly 3,000 who died.

"You really meditate here,’’ Mena said on a recent morning at the memorial. “I hear the sound of the water in the pools and feel the names and remember what happened that day.’’

He uses distilled warm water mixed with a patina cleanser that protects the brass panels. He takes steaming soft-fiber cloths — one in each hand — and carefully rubs each letter. He removes oily finger smudges and water spots and shines the panels clean to give respect and honor to those who perished.

Mena’s fingers move across the engraved names — each located on a lettered panel with a corresponding number. They are names of people he had never met before they died but five years of wiping and polishing has helped him connect to the level of humanity lost.

Panel N-27 struck a chord on Mena's first day on the job, he said. A native of the Dominican Republic, Mena saw his surname on the brass panel — Diarelia Jovanah Mena.

“I was shocked," he said. "I thought I might have known someone. But I investigated and found out she was from Argentina.’’

In the early morning stillness, Mena often sees mourners place a flower or a hand on a loved one's name he had made clean just for that very moment.

“You can see their sadness," he said. "I see them cry and it makes me want to keep the names cleaner so that they know someone cares and has not forgotten.’’ 

For many families who never recovered their relatives remains, the memorial is a cemetery.

“A quarter of us do not have remains,’’ said Monica Iken, a memorial board member who has yet to recover the remains of her husband, Michael, killed in the south tower. “This is a place of healing and it must be honored. I visit Michael here all the time and take pictures. I know he is here and that he is at peace.’’

Retired FDNY Deputy Chief James Riches lost his 29-year-old firefighter son Jimmy when his unit responded to the north tower. 

“My peace is with his name on that plaza,’’ Riches said. “I am happy that the men keep the panels clean. We have to honor those who took their last breath there because this is a cemetery and we can’t forget that.’’ 

Mena’s presence is a reminder that the plaza is hallowed ground where more than 44 million have visited since its opening in 2011. 

“People sometimes think this is a park and they don’t understand what happened here,’’ Mena said. “I am grateful for this job. No one gets more blessings than me — sometimes 50 times a day."

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