By MICHAEL HILL
WEST POINT, N.Y. - The U.S. Mint worker dons surgical gloves as she sprays down the large silver pieces like flowers in a garden. They clank and jingle in the tray as liquid beads up on their mirror-like surfaces and they are sent on their way, to be transformed into medals in memory of the Sept. 11 attacks.
The mint next to U.S. Military Academy, specializes in producing bullion coins made from gold, silver and platinum, but since last year has also been making medals that help raise funds for the National September 11 Memorial and Museum in lower Manhattan. The memorial receives $10 from the sale of every silver medal, which is roughly the size of an old dollar coin and sells for $66.95.
The high-security mint rarely opens its doors to visitors, but let reporters in this week to watch blank rounds of silver be struck into medals featuring Lady Liberty holding a flaming lamp before two shafts of light symbolizing the fallen towers. The inscription reads "Always Remember."
The back features an eagle with a backdrop of falling water - an echo of cascading water surrounding reflecting pools at the memorial in lower Manhattan, about 55 miles south of West Point.
"I think they got it exactly right," said Joe Daniels, president of the memorial and museum.
More than 162,000 medals have been sold since last June, raising more than $1.6 million for the memorial.
Manhattan's memorial plaza has attracted 2.5 million visitors since it opened on Sept. 12, 2011. There is no opening date for the museum, which became mired in a dispute over who is responsible for paying millions of dollars in infrastructure costs.
The task of turning bars of silver stored on site into medals is a complicated process. A vendor melts down the metal and delivers back to the mint what look like shiny blank coins. The blanks are meticulously inspected, washed and burnished before being fed into dyes that strike with the force of 217 tons.
The machine hisses as it clucks down three times and pulls back to reveal the medal's image. A gloved worker uses large tweezers with rubberized tips to examine the face and reverse of each one. Bare hands never touch the medals.
"It's very important that it's clean and that we do everything possible when the coin leaves here that it's in pristine condition," said plant manager Ellen McCullom.
The mint at Philadelphia also stamps the medals.
Congress had to approve a bill before the U.S Mint could start striking the Sept. 11 medal. President Barack Obama signed it into law in August 2010. While the medal was designed by the Mint, Congress put its two cents in: the law dictates the wording of the inscriptions as well as the amount of silver in each medal (one ounce) and when the last medals can be struck (Dec. 31, 2012).
The law also dictates that the Mint can produce up to 2 million medals. Daniels said opening the West Point facility to publicity now made sense.
"It's always good to remind people of ways they can participate, particularly as so many people are coming to the memorial," he said.