JAY — Flags at half-staff. Yellow ribbons tied around poles. Businesses with signs reading, “Holland Strong, El Faro 33.”

The streets here were empty late Wednesday afternoon, but just past the center of town, in the Jay Community Building auditorium, hundreds of people gathered. They embraced and remembered the life of Michael Holland, a merchant mariner from Wilton who was among 33 crew members lost at sea when the cargo ship El Faro sank off the coast of the Bahamas earlier this month.

“Why would anyone put themselves through any of this?… Well, simply put, because it’s still worth it. He was worth it,” Holland’s childhood friend, Ben Hebert, said. “To know Mike was to love Mike.”

At the celebration of life service held at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday, family and friends of the 25-year-old Wilton man were joined by neighbors, community members, Maine Maritime Academy’s president and color guard, the Coast Guard, relatives of fellow El Faro crew members, the president of TOTE Services — the company that owned the El Faro — as well as Gov. Paul LePage and Sen. Thomas Saviello of Wilton.

Throughout the hourlong service officiated by the Rev. Joseph Daniels and Cmdr. Clifford Stuart, a chaplain, there was not an empty seat or a dry eye in the auditorium as Holland’s friends and fellow mariners reflected on a life lost at sea.

Deborah Roberts Holland, his mother, did not speak at the service, but others stood to share their memories.

“One of the words that I think best describes him is gravity,” Hebert said. “He was never pressured by anything or anyone to be something he was not.”

Hebert remembered Holland as selfless, soft-spoken, laid-back and kind-hearted. Throughout what he described as an effortless friendship, Hebert recalled phases of fascination the two shared with tropical fish, Pokemon cards and baseball. Holland was a one of a kind, Hebert said, equipped with his own signature “Holland handshake.” He also had admiration for his “body and belly button region,” Hebert joked.

From hunting and fishing to a love of classic rock, country music and his truck, Holland was described as a “hometown boy,” but that didn’t stop him from gaining a close-knit group of friends wherever he went. When he moved from the mountains of western Maine to Castine to begin his maritime career as a student at Maine Maritime Academy, Holland found a group of fellow students who shared his love for the simpler things — making fun any way they could in the sleepy coastal town.

Ashley Genest, a classmate and close friend of Holland’s during his time at MMA, recalled the time she spent with Holland in Castine. As the wife of one of Holland’s crew of guy friends, Genest said she was the “tag-along little sister” to many shenanigans, voicing caution even though she knew none of them would listen.

“Mike was fearless. … If you dared him to do something, he would do it,” Genest said.

Genest shared one instance of what she called “Castine fun,” in which Holland and his friends had the idea to fix up “a yellow redneck school bus.” True to their nature, the idea became a reality, and they decided to take the bus to Boston to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. Genest said that Holland was the last to be picked up before the bus departed, and she remembers as the bus arrived at his driveway seeing Holland waiting eagerly — smiling — with a backpack on and a half-gallon of rum in his hand, like a kid excited to get on the school bus for the first time.

“Mike’s heart had no boundaries,” Genest said.

Holland graduated from the academy in 2012 with a bachelor’s degree in marine engineering and technology. After graduating, Holland obtained his maritime license through the U.S. Coast Guard and served as a U.S. merchant marine for the last three years as a third assistant engineer — most recently on the El Faro, which was operated by TOTE Services.

Dave Weathers, national vice president of the American Maritime Officers Union, spoke highly of Holland’s service as a merchant marine and officers union member.

Holland “was a good shipmate and a good engineer,” Weathers said. “‘Holland Strong’ — he brought that to TOTE, to El Faro, to the U.S. Merchant Marine Services. Looking at the MMA cadets (in attendance), I could see future Mike Hollands, with big shoes to fill.”

Philip H. Greene Jr., president of TOTE Services, was invited to speak at the service by Holland’s family. Greene shared Weathers’ admiration for Holland as an exceptional mariner and said the global maritime community is mourning the loss.

Holland was a leader and “an exceptionally gifted marine engineer and a proud merchant marine officer,” Greene said. “We will not forget the crew members of the El Faro — ever.”

Holland is one of the 33 El Faro crew members who were declared lost at sea after the Coast Guard called off its extensive six-day search and rescue mission on Oct. 7. Aboard the El Faro were 28 Americans and five Polish nationals.

Among the four Mainers lost were Holland; the ship’s captain, Michael Davidson, of Windham; Danielle Randolph, 34, of Rockland; and Dylan Meklin, 23, of Rockland. A fifth crew member, Mitchell Kuflik, of Brooklyn, New York, graduated from Maine Maritime Academy in 2011.

Randolph’s mother, Laurie Bobillot, read a poem at the celebration of Holland’s life on Wednesday. After reading a few lines, she began to cry and said, “I’m going to do this. Danielle will never forgive me if I don’t.” She regained her composure and read the prose with the academy’s president, William Brennan, standing at her side.

Bobillot’s choice of saying “will” instead of “would” reinforced the tone of Wednesday’s service. It was the tone of a grieving family and community still holding out hope.

“I think he will always still be out there for me,” Hebert said, choking back tears. “If he shows up at our door one day and says, ‘Guess what?!’ I won’t be surprised.”

Lauren Abbate — 861-9252

[email protected]

Twitter: @Lauren_M_Abbate

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