Tragedy at Maho Beach: Plane spotter dies fence surfing at SXM


The warning signs are not subtle at Maho Beach. Many visitors ignore them.
The warning signs are not subtle at Maho Beach. Many visitors ignore them.

Tragedy struck on Maho Beach Wednesday afternoon. A 57-year old tourist was blown over by the jet blast of a departing Caribbean Airlines 737 and struck her head on a concrete barrier. She was pronounced dead at the local hospital a short time later.

Standing directly on top of the warning signs seems a foolish way to spend your day
Standing directly on top of the warning signs seems a foolish way to spend your day

I’ve stood on that beach many times. My most recent visit was just four weeks ago for the Caribavia Caribbean Aviation Conference. Among the topics discussed was the appeal of the beach for AvGeeks of all stripes, watching the planes come and go, the intimacy of the experience. For this woman that led to death.

The warning signs are not subtle at Maho Beach. Many visitors ignore them.
The warning signs are not subtle at Maho Beach. Many visitors ignore them.

There are, of course, warnings plastered all over the beach. Most visitors heed the signage and stay more or less outside the blast area. Or at least on the beach itself rather than on the fence. Getting blown over on the beach means tumbling backwards down in to the water. Getting blown over on the fence means hitting the asphalt road or, as in the case of this tragedy, the concrete barrier that keeps sand off the runway. That is significantly more dangerous.

These concrete barriers protect the road and the runway. They also are incredibly dangerous.
These concrete barriers protect the road and the runway. They also are incredibly dangerous.

I filmed a lot of planes taking off and landing during my few days on the island. I wasn’t entirely sure what I’d do with the content, but I was reviewing it last night after the news came in and again this morning. Turns out I have video of a 737 from Caribbean Airlines departing in the late afternoon and the blast it produces. This is the airline and aircraft type involved in the woman’s death.

The Airbus A340 from Air France is commonly joked about by AvGeeks as having “hair dryers” for engines, suggesting they aren’t all that powerful. Watching people and things (some of which are mine) get blown away on the beach makes it abundantly clear just how powerful those “tiny” engines really are.

At one point I thought I was outside the blast range siting on the beach, recording others being foolish. Turns out I was not far enough away to escape the 757-200’s impact. But at least I was down on the beach where I could fall down softly; my only problem was getting sand out of various nooks and crannies.

In the immediate aftermath I saw mention on my Twitter timeline of suggestions about closing the beach or making other changes. I doubt that happens as the road is a necessary throughway to businesses and residences on the far side of the airport; it is their only connection to the rest of the island and room does not exist to build on the other side.

Also, despite this incident, Maho Beach is and will remain one of the primary tourist attractions on St Maarten. Local authorities highlighted it as the most popular activity for cruise ship visitors and sitting at the Sunset Grill adjacent to the beach on a random afternoon it was hard to dispute that claim. Busloads of visitors arrived from the port just to spend a couple hours in the sun with planes overhead. It is not the only reason people come to the island, of course, but it is big business and I cannot imagine that being cut.

Cruise ship crowds on Maho Beach, and this wasn't even a particularly busy day
Cruise ship crowds on Maho Beach, and this wasn’t even a particularly busy day

Maybe the airport authority will increase the presence of guards warning people off the fence line. I was challenged once on a prior visit as I was setting up a camera. I was not going to stand on the fence line for that particular arrival; I just wanted the video from the runway centerline. The other guy won that argument and I didn’t get the shot. But I’m also not sure how viable staffing the fence throughout the day really is. For the late evening flights crowds are typically very small anyways as the cruise ships are packing up to sail on.

Surely this woman wasn’t expecting injury or death. But the warnings were all present and ignored, like so many others have before. The ultimate outcome was, unfortunately, far worse this time around. Terribly sad, indeed.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and .

12 Comments

    1. Aircraft that we use for emergency training and fire department training!

      1. Thanks for chiming in, Alain. I thought that might be the case but wasn’t certain.

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