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Mother's note in a bottle held a promise to son lost in sinking of El Faro

By GILLIAN GRAHAM | Portland Press Herald, Maine (Tribune News Service) | Published: February 20, 2016

On the day the Coast Guard called off the search for the El Faro’s crew, Deb Roberts wrote a note to her son and put it in a bottle to be taken to the last known location of the missing cargo ship.

The bottle, tossed into the sea near the Bahamas by the crew of the El Faro’s sister ship, contained a promise to Michael Holland: Roberts would continue to advocate for the expansion of the Educational Opportunity Tax Credit to include mariners who live in Maine but spend much of the year out at sea working for out-of-state companies.

Holland and his mother had been working with state Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton, to expand the credit before the sinking of the El Faro. Holland’s death renewed Roberts’ resolve to support a bill to honor her son and benefit other mariners.

“I promised I would work my hardest to get it passed for him,” she said. “I wanted to see it through even though it won’t affect him. I know he would want it for all of his fellow mariners.”

Holland, a 25-year-old engineer from Wilton, was among the 33 crew members who died when the El Faro was lost on Oct. 1 during Hurricane Joaquin. The victims also included the ship’s captain, Michael Davidson of Windham, and crew members Danielle Randolph, 34, and Dylan Meklin, 23, both of Rockland. Davidson and the three crewmen, along with Mitchell Kuflik of Brooklyn, New York, were all graduates of Maine Maritime Academy in Castine.

The investigation into what happened to the ship is ongoing, with Coast Guard hearings scheduled to continue into next week.

Meanwhile, a public hearing is scheduled to be held Feb. 29 at the State House in Augusta on L.D. 1587, which would allow a resident of Maine who is employed on a vessel at sea outside of Maine to qualify for the Educational Opportunity Tax Credit. The credit currently is available only to residents who are employed by a Maine company or who are deployed for military service.

The tax credit, first approved in 2007, is open to college graduates who stay in Maine to work. The tax credits are based on the amount of student loan payments made throughout the year.

It’s not clear how many people would be affected by the change, but Saviello said Friday that expanding eligibility is a “no-brainer.”

“The Maine Maritime graduates often get really good salaries,” he said. “They’re the kind of people we want to stay in Maine.”

A bill to expand the credit to mariners who live in Maine was passed during the first half of the current legislative biennium, but went unfunded. Saviello had submitted the bill after talking with Roberts, who took care of her son’s finances while he was away at sea. While doing her son’s taxes, she realized he missed out on a $4,000 tax credit because the company he worked for – like most cargo shipping companies – was not based in Maine.

“The issue is that merchant mariners don’t work in Maine,” Roberts said. “They make their homes here, register their vehicles in Maine, spend their earnings at Maine businesses and are even taxed as though they were living in Maine all 12 months during the year.”

When the first bill went unfunded, Saviello promised Roberts and Holland he would submit it again. Then the El Faro and its crew perished and Saviello knew he and Roberts should continue to push for the expansion of the tax credit to honor Holland. Saviello said he had been looking forward to meeting Holland when he came ashore but never had the chance.

“This is my way of saying, ‘We didn’t meet, but I’m going to honor your memory,”’ Saviello said. “I don’t believe there’s such a thing as a coincidence. Four of the individuals on the ship would have been eligible for the tax credit. It’s really a tribute to those four people.”

As much as he sees the bill as a tribute to the El Faro crew members, Saviello said it is also a way to honor his own father, Carmine, a mariner during World War II, and Maine’s own maritime tradition.

“Part of Maine’s tradition is our maritime tradition. We’ve been shipping out forever,” he said. “We should reward that heritage. This is another way to do that.”

Roberts, who lives in Wilton, said she has heard strong backing for the bill from the community of supporters that has developed since the sinking of El Faro. Many of those people have told her they will speak at the public hearing or write letters of support, including the mother of Danielle Randolph.

The public hearing on the bill comes as investigators are seeking answers about who bears responsibility for the El Faro’s sailing into a hurricane. Two weeks of marine safety hearings regarding the ship began this week with a panel of Coast Guard and National Transportation Safety Board officials hearing testimony from a variety of witnesses about the sinking of the Jacksonville, Florida-based ship. They are expected to continue through Friday of next week.

Roberts said she listened to a Coast Guard briefing for families before the hearings started, as well as a memorial to victims on the first day. Otherwise, she hasn’t followed the proceedings closely and will wait until more is known rather than focusing on the news trickling out of the hearings, she said.

“It’s not something I personally have a vested interest in. I’ve come to terms that accidents happen,” she said. “For me, I’m just able to move on and concentrate on memorializing Mike in a positive way.”

Beyond supporting the tax credit bill – dubbed the Hollandstrong Mariners Bill by supporters – Roberts is also gearing up for the “Hollandstrong” fishing derby her son’s friends have planned for Saturday to benefit the scholarship fund she founded in Holland’s memory.

“The community has given us so much support,” she said. “The response is just overwhelming.”

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©2016 the Portland Press Herald (Portland, Maine)

Visit the Portland Press Herald (Portland, Maine) at www.pressherald.com

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