As Long as the Lights are On

Meg Ermer, Guest Writer

The first time I visited the boilers, they scared me. Huge men filled the constricted area, sweating and swearing profusely, and when I finally located my father in the midst of it all, I barely recognized him due to the thick layer of coal dust masking him from head to toe. It seemed as if this hellish, deafening place had imprisoned my father and was slowly killing him.

“Branson,” he said reassuringly when he saw my petrified face, “I’m fine here. These men are just like us, trying to make some money for a better life.”

“But you’re so far away,” I countered desperately. Even though steerage was also in the bottom of the ship, the boilers and furnaces seemed worlds away.

Da looked at me, trying to think how to ease my worries. “You know the lights?” I nodded; the electric lights that illuminated the the ship had astonished me the first time I saw them. “This coal I’m shoveling powers all the electricity on the ship, including the lights. As long as the lights are on, know I am down here thinking of you.”

These words of comfort sufficed. Because my father was so busy all day

long, my days were spent exploring the ship. Calling it a ship seemed insulting, for it really was a giant city floating on the waters. Although the third class only boasted two general rooms for us to use, we made our own fun. At night, musicians pulled out their whistles and fiddles and we had exciting dances that drew even the first class passengers from their fancy lounges. For meals, fresh bread and potatoes were provided, a luxury compared with the thin gruel I was accustomed to.


On Sunday night, I awoke to the sounds of urgent talking in the corridor. I

jumped down from my narrow berth, and, when my feet hit the floor, I noticed something felt different. Maybe I just landed wrong, but I was off balance and had to steady myself against the wall. The hushed murmur of adult conversations permeated the hallway. It was a funny sight to see all the grownups standing around in their nightclothing, but the urgency of the situation kept me from laughing.

“What’s wrong?” I asked a group of mothers huddled near my door.

“Na’s the matter, lad,” a kind voice reassured me. “We’ve just hit a rough

part. Go back to sleep and it’ll all be right in the morn.”

Too many concerned conversations echoing throughout the hallways for nothing to be

wrong, and I needed to know what the problem was. When no one was watching, I bolted down the hallway toward the stairway. The rules banned third class passengers from the main decks, but, over the past week, I had figured out how to time my escapes just as the crew opened the gates.

I shivered as the icy air enveloped me. First class passengers filled the deck as they

milled around. Except for some official-looking men conversing quietly off to the side, no one seemed especially worried about anything. Suddenly, a loud boom split the night. I looked up to see fireworks exploding high above the ship. Maybe this all was just a ship-wide party?

It was then I noticed the floor was slanting. Not enough to cause a

problem, but the deck was definitely tilting back. No one else seemed to mind, though. A string quartet played catchy melodies as passengers laughed and talked. I heard some complaints filter through the festivities.

“This is ridiculous,” an elderly woman nearby declared. “Waking us all

up at this hour? The White Star Line will certainly hear from me.” She stormed back to her room.

A man’s voice cut through the air. “We will begin loading the lifeboats.

Women and children only, please.”

I heard some reassurances of  “It’s just a drill,” but the looks on the engineers faces told

me otherwise.

I suddenly remembered Da. The deck was brightly illuminated by the electric lights, but I

needed to warn him something was wrong. I started running toward the boilers, but a man in a dark uniform stopped me.

“Where’re your parents, child?” he asked.

“I’m going. . .” Before I could get any further, he picked me up and tossed me into a


“I have to go tell my Da,” I shouted as the lifeboat began to lower into the water. I

couldn’t stand the thought of Da trapped in the pits of the ship without knowing where I was.

“We’ll be back soon,” a man in the lifeboat assured me, “the Titanic is unsinkable. The

watertight compartments underneath will prevent the ship from flooding over.”

Are we sinking?” I asked.

He replied, “We hit an iceberg, but I don’t think much will come of it. That’s why they

aren’t filling the lifeboats all the way.”

As we drifted away from the Titanic, our predicament became more apparent. The ship was indeed tilting, even more than earlier, and getting worse by the minute. I realized that the rooms in back of the ship would be completely flooded. The lights still lit the ship, so I knew Da was still ok. But how would he and the other boiler workers get to safety if they had to keep generating electricity?


The minutes wore on. In just a short time, the atmosphere had gone from

festive to panicked. The people on my lifeboat frantically rowed away from the Titanic as not to get sucked under with it. As the ship sank rapidly into the sea, we heard the hysteric screams of people desperately trying to stay above the freezing black waters.

As the giant ship had all but disappeared from view, it seemed to get darker. I realized that the lights had dimmed.

“Da!” I screamed into the night. My voice was lost in the shrieks and screams of the hundreds of drowning people in the waters. The light faded and faded until suddenly, everything went black.




Butler, Daniel Allen. Unsinkable: The Full Story. Mechanicsburg, Stackpole Books, 1998.

Matthews, Diana. “Third Class Life on the Titanic.” ALookThruTime, 13 April 2012,

Randall, David. “The Forgotten Victims: How the Titanic Handed a Devastating Legacy to the People of Southampton.” The Independent, The Independent, 4 April 2012,

Spignesi, Stephen. The Titanic for Dummies. Hoboken, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2012.

White, Ellen Emmerson. Voyage on the Great Titanic. New York, Scholastic Inc., 1998.