JAY — To get a sense of the impact Michael Holland had on this community, you only had to drive to Jay on Wednesday, where “Holland Strong” posters were hung in random places.

On the streets, groups of glum-faced men and women made their way toward the middle school where a celebration of life was held in honor of the 25-year-old Merchant Marine, lost at sea earlier this month.

Several hundred people showed up for the service, to the point where it turned into a standing-room-only affair, with dozens left in the hall outside the school gymnasium.

Almost everyone agreed that Holland would have been pleased.

“He would be immensely proud of how this community has rallied behind him,” said Ben Hebert, a lifelong friend of Holland. “He’d just say, ‘Well, huh, I guess they did like me.'”

That’s putting it mildly. During the one-hour service, the mood in the school gymnasium swung between heavy sadness and hilarity as a long string of friends, classmates and colleagues shared their memories. Those memories ranged from Mike gutting a deer in front of a squeamish friend; Mike locking his little brother in the bathroom; Mike always showing up when his friends and family needed him the most.

“He’d do anything for anybody, day or night,” said Ashley Genest, a friend and classmate who attended the Maritime Academy with Holland. “He was a fearless leader who was always there for you.”

Some of Genest’s recollections caused the room to erupt in laughter. Moments later, those in the audience were sniffling and wiping at their eyes as Genest described the grief of the community.

“Our hearts are absolutely broken,” Genest said. “We’ll never not expect a call from the Bahamas.”

Holland and his shipmates were lost at sea on Thursday, Oct. 1. He was one of 33 crew members aboard the S.S. El Faro that sank during Hurricane Joaquin near Crooked Island, Bahamas, according to news accounts.

According to accounts of the sinking, El Faro departed Jacksonville, Fla., bound for Puerto Rico on the early morning of Sept. 30 when Tropical Storm Joaquin was several hundred miles to the east.

“The following morning, after Joaquin had become a Category 3 hurricane, the vessel likely encountered swells of 20 to 40 feet,” according to Wikipedia, and winds nearing 100 mph as it sailed near the storm’s eye. Shortly after 7:30 a.m., the El Faro ceased all communications with shore and was declared missing on Oct. 2.

An extensive search operation was launched by the the U.S. Coast Guard, with the Air Force, Air National Guard and Navy providing assistance. Debris, a damaged lifeboat, and an unidentifiable body were recovered in their search before the El Faro was declared sunk on Oct. 5.

More than half a dozen people got up to speak at the Wednesday service. Several broke down and wept as they tried to describe the dual nature of Michael Holland. He was hilarious and laid back, they said. But he was also deeply competitive and approached everything in a dedicated way.

“Mike worked hard at everything he did,” Genest said. “He never once gave up.”

According to his obituary, Holland was a 2008 graduate of Jay High School and continued his education at Maine Maritime Academy, graduating in 2012. He earned his Bachelor of Science degree in marine engineering technology and obtained his license through the U.S. Coast Guard. He had shipped as a U.S. Merchant Marine for the past three years as a 3rd assistant engineer, most recently for TOTE Services.

Philip H. Greene, president of TOTE Services, spoke of Holland’s work as a marine engineer and lauded the “phenomenal work he did on behalf of the country.”

Maine Maritime Academy President William Brennan talked of the perils of the sea and the brotherhood that forms among the people who sail it.

“Michael will forever be a mariner,” Brennan said.

Tammy Lindsey, Holland’s former art teacher at the middle school, read a poem describing a mother’s pain at losing a son to the sea. Like others, she encouraged the grieving to take solace in the support of the community.

“Keep the faith,” Lindsey said, “because we will always be Holland Strong.”

Hebert told stories of the old days, describing the sleepovers, the baseball games, the childhood adventures and misdeeds he shared with Holland.

“Mike gave me some of the best moments of my life,” Hebert said, “some of the funnest times.”

He struggled for one word to describe his lost friend.

“Gravity,” Hebert said. “He had this aura to him that just drew people in. To know Mike was to love Mike.”

Gov. Paul R. LePage on Wednesday ordered flags on all public buildings and grounds in Franklin County to be lowered to half-staff until sunset. The governor made an appearance at the Celebration of Life and issued a statement about the passing of Holland and his shipmates.

“The first lady and I are deeply saddened by the loss of those aboard the El Faro, including our five Mainers,” LePage said. “During this very difficult time, our hearts go out to the families and friends of our fellow Mainers, as well as all the other crew members.”

Like Genest, Hebert said he will never stop wondering until Holland’s remains are found and brought home.

“These last few weeks have been the lowest point of my life,” he said, “the endless agony of the unknown.”

For Genest, while waiting for that out-of-the-blue call from the Bahamas, it helps to believe that Holland has gone to a place that no living sailor has been.

“We have the most incredible person,” she said, “watching over our Merchant Marines and over every one of us here at home.”


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