Sculptor Jay Sawyer with the memorial he is working on for the victims in the El Faro tragedy, which included four Mainers. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

When sculptor Jay Sawyer decided to create a memorial for the victims of one of the worst maritime tragedies in recent history, he had a notion the project might take on a life of its own.

“I don’t know that I’ve done something like this, something that has this kind of purpose,” he said this month from his studio, a converted garage next to his home in Warren, just west of Rockland. “It’s bigger than me.”

On Sept. 24, in a grassy lot on Atlantic Avenue overlooking Rockland harbor, Sawyer’s memorial, titled “El Faro Salute!” will be dedicated before an expected crowd of more than 300 people, including family members of victims.

The sculpture, made of salvaged steel that has been formed and welded, features a replica of the cargo ship’s stern with the torsos of two uniformed models – one man, one woman – mounted on top with their right arms raised in salute. The metal has rusted to form a warm bronze patina. Etched into the sculpture in block type are the names of the 33 people who are presumed to have died when the El Faro sank in the Caribbean Sea during Hurricane Joaquin in October 2015, including four who were from Maine.

Sawyer has raised more than $100,000 to fund the project and has worked on it, on and off, for six years. Now that it’s complete, he said he feels both relief and pride.

“I would say it’s the most personal thing I’ve ever done, yeah. The most ambitious and the most important, too,” said Sawyer, who was a 1983 graduate of Maine Maritime Academy and worked as a mariner for years before slowly transitioning to art. Five of the El Faro victims also were MMA graduates, including the ship’s captain, Michael Davidson of Windham, 53.


Another MMA graduate, Michael Holland of Wilton, was just 25 years old and one of the youngest victims. His mother, Deb Roberts, said her sadness has lessened somewhat over the last seven years, but it still surprises her.

“There are times when, with no specific trigger at all, it just comes,” she said. “Grief is such a strange process.”

Having a memorial for her son, and the others, close to home means something to Roberts, and she credited Sawyer for taking it on.

“When you lose someone at sea and you have no graveside to go to, that’s a really unique experience,” she said. “Sometimes, you just want a place to put flowers.”

Sawyer is quick to say he’s not a trained artist, but he figured out his own distinct style along the way, and many of his sculptures have been installed in public places, including Portland International Jetport. His property in Warren also features a vast sculpture garden that he used to open to the public.

In so many ways, he was the perfect person to design and build the El Faro memorial. It was almost as if the project chose him. And at several times throughout the process, he’s gotten reminders of how important it feels for people to be connected, even in loss.


“I really just wanted to have something that celebrates the power of art as a way to heal,” he said.


The cargo ship El Faro sank in a hurricane on Oct. 1, 2015. File photo Photo courtesy of Capt. William Hoey/

The S.S. El Faro was a nearly 800-foot cargo ship responsible for carrying goods back and forth between Jacksonville, Florida and San Juan, Puerto Rico – a trip of more than 1,200 miles in the Caribbean Sea that could be rough in hurricane season.

In the fall of 2015, the 40-year-old ship – captained by Davidson, a 1988 Maine Maritime graduate with years of experience – was scheduled for repairs and renovations before it was to be transferred to a route from Alaska to Washington state.

It never made it.

Despite warnings that Hurricane Joaquin was fast approaching, the ship sailed on and wound up directly in the storm’s path. A transcript of the audio from the ship’s bridge, which was recovered somewhat miraculously from the ocean floor less than a year after El Faro sank, revealed a harrowing final 24 hours for the crew members.


Pictured left to right, top to bottom, are Michael Holland of Wilton, Capt. Michael Davidson of Windham, Dylan Meklin and Danielle Randolph, both of Rockland. Courtesy photo

Of the 33 who were killed, 28 were Americans. The other five were from Poland.

The four from Maine were: Davidson, Holland, Danielle Randolph, 34, a second mate, and Dylan Meklin, 23, an engineer who was on his first maritime trip. Randolph and Meklin were both from Rockland.

All four were graduates of Maine Maritime Academy in Castine, as was a fifth crew member, Mitchell Kuflik, 26, who lived in New York.

The tragedy led to years of investigations by the U.S. Coast Guard and the National Transportation Safety Board, which ultimately concluded that the cause was multifaceted. There were failures in inspections, failures in maintenance of the vessel and failures in communication. Responsibility was shared, according to investigative reports, among Davidson, the ship’s owner, TOTE Maritime Inc., the American Bureau of Shipping and the Coast Guard itself.

Roberts said one of the hardest things about how her son died was having to share her grief with the world.

“There are plusses and minuses,” she said. “There have certainly been times where it hasn’t felt like we could go through privately. But when you share it with others, that can be comforting because they know a little of what you’re going through.”


Since Maine has not had its own memorial until now, many families have traveled to Jacksonville, which has a lighthouse memorial and park dedicated to the El Faro victims. There is a similar version in Puerto Rico. El Faro means lighthouse in Spanish.

“As the years have gone by, there are less and less that make the trip to Jacksonville,” Roberts said.


After leaving mariner life, Sawyer worked as a welder and consultant, repairing machinery and equipment. Often on projects, materials needed to be discarded, and he began to develop an eye for what types of things might be useful down the road. It wasn’t until 2005 that he started using his metal and salvage skills to make sculpture, but he hasn’t stopped since and now, he makes his living as an artist.

Sawyer, like so many in Maine, was devastated by the El Faro tragedy.

Even though he didn’t know any of the victims personally, he knew the community. He wanted to pay tribute and started thinking about what a sculpture memorial might look like.


He also started reaching out to the mariner community and the families who lost loved ones to help raise money.

“I didn’t want to go after grants and foundation support for this,” he said. “I wanted the community to have ownership of it.”

The response was unexpected.

People from all over the country, even people who had no connection to El Faro or the victims, donated.

“I couldn’t believe it,” he said.

Roberts could.


“My son was the first in our family to join this community, so we weren’t familiar,” she said. “But it’s such a close and supportive community. They just take care of each other.”

Sculptor Jay Sawyer works on the finishing details of his sculpture in his studio in Warren earlier this month. Sawyer is using an electric welder that belonged to Richard Pusatere, the ship’s chief engineer and one of the victims in the El Faro tragedy. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Support for Sawyer’s memorial didn’t just come in financial ways.

One offer of assistance stood out.

The parents of Richard Pusatere, the El Faro’s chief engineer, learned about the memorial and reached out to Sawyer. Their son had a commercial welder, similar to the kind Sawyer used often in his artwork. They asked the artist if he wanted to use it.

And he did.

“That’s the kind of thing I wasn’t really prepared for,” Sawyer said.


The sculpture started from giant sheets of scrap mental that Sawyer formed, cut and welded to suit his design. When it came time to create the two model mariners in salute, he went personal. The saluting hand of the male model is a replica of his own, and the female is his daughter’s.

When the sculpture is installed at the site in Rockland Harbor, it will sit on a base with two pillars on each side. Connecting them is a front panel of steel that Sawyer fabricated to look like a wave.

It will face the water, with the Rockland Breakwater Lighthouse jutting out in the distance.

Roberts said she’s prepared for the dedication to be emotional.

“But I think it will be comforting too, being with those families again,” she said.

For Sawyer, the dedication promises to be cathartic. He’s been living with the project for six years, hearing countless stories from family members like Roberts who only want their loved ones not to be forgotten. That’s what Sawyer wants, too.

“I’m ready for it to be out in the world,” he said.

Sculptor Jay Sawyer with the memorial he is working on for the victims in the El Faro tragedy. Sawyer was a mariner himself before he became an artist. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

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