Developer Ignores Families Trying to Prevent More Suicides at the Vessel

There have been four suicides at the Vessel since the 150-foot structure opened on the far West Side of Manhattan in March 2019. Three of the four devastated families who lost a loved one say they want to speak to someone at the Related Companies, the firm that owns the Vessel and spent an estimated $200 million building it, to prevent future suicides. So far, their pleas have been greeted only with silence from Related.

| 10 Apr 2023 | 03:55

Editor’s Note: The following story contains upsetting details about the topic of suicide of young people.

Colleen DeSalvo left a message on the information line, asking to speak to someone, anyone, about what had happened.

Shilpa Kulkarni reached out through an intermediary with much the same request to connect with the owners of the Vessel.

Avremi Gourarie located the email for Stephen M. Ross, Chair of the Related Companies, which built and owns the Vessel, and wrote to him directly in 2021.

“Mr. Ross,” the email said, “My name is Avremi Gourarie. My daughter is Yocheved Gourarie. She took her life at the Vessel December 22 of last year [2020]. I’d like the opportunity to meet with you. I’ll come to the place of your choosing at the time of your choosing. Please let me know if this is a possibility. Thank you very much.”

He copied Ross’s number two, the CEO of Related, Jeff T. Blau.

DeSalvo, Kulkarni and Gourarie are connected by incomprehensible tragedy. Each lost a child to suicide at the Vessel, an intertwined set of 154 stairways to nowhere that, despite concerns, Stephen Ross built as part of his $25 billion Hudson Yards development.

While they are very different in their backgrounds, each parent, in their grief, had the same instinct to reach out to the owners of the Vessel to talk about their loss.

Each say they received the same response: silence.

Colleen DeSalvo’s son, Peter, a student at Sacred Heart University, was the first to jump from the Vessel in February of 2020, a year after it opened. Colleen searched the internet and found a telephone number for information at the Vessel.

“I just got the answering machine, and I said, ‘This is Colleen DeSalvo, Peter’s mother, and I would like to speak to someone about what happened. I just need to talk to someone about this.’ And I never got a response back.”

All three families said they understand that Related may be avoiding them for fear of lawsuits. But all three, in separate interviews, said that suing is not their plan. Their purpose is to keep the memory of their children alive and keep other parents from reliving their experience.

“I would just hope that Related, having their resources and us having our passions, if we, together, can somehow come together, I think we can actually make a difference,” said Shilpa Kulkarni, whose son, Shiv, was the last of four deaths, jumping from the vessel in front of his family on July 29, 2021, just short of his 15th birthday.

“My dream is to meet with this guy [Ross] and have this conversation,” Gourarie said.

“I’d love to have a conversation where we could tell him about my experience, tell him about the people I’m meeting. Talk to him about suicide prevention and for him to kind of partner in all the work that we are doing.”

For its part, Related says it is supporting mental health and suicide prevention efforts, working with an organization called Project Healthy Minds, which describes itself as a “new non profit for a new era of mental wellness.”

The Vessel families say they don’t understand why neither Related nor Project Healthy Minds, has included them in the work or reached out in any way.

This bitterness spilled on to social media the other day (March 20, 2023) after the CEO of Project Healthy Minds, Phillip Schermer, thanked Related and CEO Jeff Blau on LinkedIn for co-hosting an “amazing dinner” discussion on “mental health as the next big ESG [environmental, social, governance] issue for CEOs” and companies.

“We couldn’t have had such a vibrant conversation about how companies are approaching this, what the challenges and opportunities are, and where we go from here without the amazing group of leaders who attended,” Schermer wrote.

This was too much for Gourarie. Under Schermer’s post, he commented:

“Related? The company that brought us the Vessel, where my daughter lost her life in 2020. Their own architect expressed concerns about the safety of the barriers. Now they’re talking about mental health? Pathetic. I have yet to hear from them (I reached out). This is a smokescreen cleverly designed to deflect blame for their culpability in 4 suicides. Until they’re ready to take responsibility for this, they should not be trusted with any mental health initiatives.”

By the next day, Gourarie’s comment had been removed.

Straus News made multiple inquiries to Related for response to the requests from the three families to meet with Ross or a Related executive. The Related spokesman declined to respond.

Meanwhile, the Vessel itself remains closed as Related explores whether there is a safe way to reopen it.

Colleen DeSalvo says she hates the Vessel. Understandable, given the loss it represents for her and the other families. She finds it painful to watch events continue at the Vessel—summer movie nights, Christmas lights.

But at the same time, she acknowledges that it is a striking structure.

“It is an interesting tourist attraction and a lot of people want to experience that,” she said. “And it is hard for me to say this, but it is very interesting–I don’t want to say beautiful–but it is a very interesting structure and it’s very–people are drawn to it.”

That was the point from the beginning.

How it came to be

The British firm, Heatherwick Studio, was commissioned by Ross to create a landmark like the Eiffel Tower, memorable if not useful. Ross said he loved what they came up with, intertwined stairways rising 150 feet above the pavement of Hudson Yards, the largest private, mixed-use development in the country. The design was originally created, but never built, for a hilltop in Azerbaijan.

But even before it was built there were warnings the design was a lure to those with self-destructive feelings. “As one climbs up Vessel, the railings stay just above waist height all the way up to the structure’s top, but when you build high, folks will jump,” an architectural critic, Audrey Wachs, wrote in 2016 after reviewing the plans.

Her warning, echoed by others, proved tragically prescient.

The DeSalvo’s story

Colleen DeSalvo says she and her husband had no inkling Peter was struggling. In high school, in Basking Ridge, New Jersey, he had been a football and rugby star. “Peter was the most beautiful, inside and out,” his mother recalled. “He lit up a room.”

Yet, on Jan. 23, 2020 he bought a ticket for the train to Manhattan from Fairfield, Conn., where he was a freshman at Sacred Heart. A week later, on Saturday, Feb. 1, he took that train into the city.

“It wasn’t like a spur of the moment thing. He planned this.”

He went to Hudson Yards and took a series of dramatic photos of the Vessel, which his cousins found later on Instagram. Then, in the late afternoon, he walked to the sixth floor of the structure, climbed on the railing and jumped.

Visitors were asked to leave immediately after Peter took his life and the structure closed about a half hour early that Saturday night. But it reopened the next morning. A spokesman expressed condolences to Peter’s family. A security official said guards had been instructed to keep a close watch out for anyone who might be contemplating suicide.

The Community Board reached out to Related to say more needed to be done.

Three years later Colleen DeSalvo remains haunted in many ways about Peter’s death, including, why that place?

“Of all of the ways that people kill themselves, I am very curious about how he decided to go there,” asked his mother, “knowing the structure and how open it is.”

The Gourarie’s story

Like Peter De Salvo, Yocheved Gourarie was a star at home in Crown Heights. She graduated at the top of her class from Brooklyn College and the Macaulay Honors College of City University with a major in psychology. She planned to be a nurse.

She applied to the nursing school at SUNY Downstate, in her neighborhood. But her dad urged her to set her ambition higher and so she applied to Columbia.

“She was very brilliant, she had very little self confidence,” Avremi Gourarie said.

“She’d been struggling with mental health issues for the greater part of ten years.”

Her family had her on suicide watch after two previous attempts with pills. Her whereabouts were closely monitored and her access to money was restricted. But one day in December, she asked her dad for her credit card saying she wanted to buy a gift for a friend.

Instead, she ordered a ticket to the Vessel, snuck out of work, and rode the 3 train to Hudson Yards. She programmed an email to her parents and a heart rending Instagram post. “If you’re reading this I’m gone,” she wrote.

Then she jumped.

“When the cops called me to go to Hudson yards I didn’t know what it was. Hudson Yards? Vessel? I never even heard of it.”

Avremi Gourarie said he has no idea how his daughter knew about the Vessel.

A few days after her death in December 2020 a letter arrived. It was from Columbia University granting her admission to their graduate nursing program.

The Washington’s story

The third death came less than three weeks later. Franklin Washington, 21, came up from San Antonio and on Monday, Jan. 11, 2021, he climbed the Vessel and jumped. After his death, police learned from authorities in San Antonio that his mother, Michelle Washington-Hart had been murdered a few days earlier. Franklin was wanted for questioning.

If authorities know why Franklin chose to come to New York City and to the Vessel, they have not shared this information.

After this third suicide in a year, Related announced that it would “temporarily” close the Vessel while it consulted experts on suicide prevention. Lowell Kern, chair of the Community Board at the time, reiterated the board’s belief that only high barriers would prevent further suicides. He said he understood there was some reluctance to tamper with the artistic vision of the vessel.

“After three suicides, at what point does the artistic vision take a back seat to safety?” Kern asked.

Related decided against raising the barriers. On May 26, 2021 they announced the Vessel would reopen for the Memorial Day weekend with various safety measures devised with expert advice.

Security staff was increased, suicide prevention signs were posted and, most noteworthy, no one would be admitted alone, as Peter DeSalvo, Youcheved Gourarie and Franklin Washington had been.

“We don’t think this is good enough,” Kern said at the time. “The only way to prevent future tragedies is to raise the height of the barriers.”

The Kulkarni’s story

A month later, Shilpa Kulkarni and her family came to Hudson Yards as part of a brief vacation from home in New Jersey. The family was well aware that her son, Shiv, struggled with his mental health. He was coming out and suffered with anxiety and depression. He had previously attempted suicide with a bottle of Children’s Motrin.

His parents consulted Shiv’s psychiatrist about their plan to go into Manhattan for a break and the doctor said it was a good idea. They stayed at a hotel in Chelsea and swam in the pool before taking a walk to Hudson Yards. The four of them together went up the Vessel, which had reopened just a month before under the new restriction that no one could go up alone.

As Lowell Kern had warned, it wasn’t enough. As his horrified family watched, Shiv mounted the railing and leapt to his death.

“No one will ever know exactly why Shiv killed himself,” said a moving tribute published by “But family and friends say he was terrified of being viewed as different as he grappled with his sexuality, cultural identity, major depressive disorder and the isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic. His death is part of an unprecedented mental health crisis that continues to escalate among adolescents, especially vulnerable LGBTQ kids who often feel rejected.”

The Vessel was again closed and remains so, “temporarily” according to its website. But no reopening date has been set. Heatherwick Studios leaked that they had designed high barriers and believed they should be installed.

Last summer, a year after Shiv’s death, the owners installed what appeared to be safety netting, something that has been used under, for example, the Golden Gate Bridge. “We continue to test and evaluate solutions that would allow us to reopen the staircases so that everyone can fully enjoy the unique experiences Vessel provides,” a spokesperson said.

Colleen DeSalvo, Avremi Gourarie and Shilpa Kulkarni are in touch with each other. All three created online remembrances of their child and are working on programs to support other parents and children wrestling with mental health

A benefactor helped Avremi establish a scholarship in his daughter’s name to honor acts of kindness.

When Shiv died, Shilpa reached out to Colleen, who lives 15 minutes away in New Jersey.

More than anything, they want Related to acknowledge their children – and to work with them on programs to save others from what they have been through.

Related’s efforts

But Related has followed a separate path. A few months after Shiv’s death, Related held a special event to honor a young person who died by suicide. That young man was Charles Winthrop Norton, an aspiring artist, who died at 24.

His parents are Brigitte, a sculptor, and Chris, the chief executive of Equinox Hotels, which is owned by Related and has its flagship hotel in Hudson Yards. Charles had always dreamed of having an art show.

So his parents organized an art show at Hudson Yards. Featured were his whimsical drawings, which they called the Pippins, each a depiction of someone showing a thumbs up while giving a middle finger behind their back. Things aren’t always as good as the face people put on them, the young artist was saying.

The event was a fundraiser for Project Healthy Minds.

“So many people have their own story in suffering around depression and mental illness [through] family, parents, brothers, sisters,” Chris Norton said at the time. “There are people we have known for years who had never talked about it. When we start telling our story and showing the Pippins, people can connect with the visuals in some way. They see our story but they find their story also. We hope that it can become a platform and poster child to open up the conversation.”

The families who lost children at the Vessel say they were not invited.

On Oct. 22 of last year, Project Healthy Minds CEO Peter Schermer announced it was “‘‘taking over’ Hudson Yards for World Mental Health Day–bringing together cultural and business leaders, residents who live there, employees who work there, and tourists who shop there–to destigmatize mental health in a day-long series of events.”

Many of the day’s events took place on the plaza right below the shuttered Vessel.

“It is an honor to partner with Project Healthy Minds to introduce this incredible platform to our colleagues and neighbors, provide resources and help destigmatize mental health,” said Stacey Feder, chief marketing officer, Hudson Yards at Related Companies. “This collaboration between Project Healthy Minds at Hudson Yards provides an unprecedented education platform to present events, gatherings and discussions on important challenges that are facing us as individuals and our society at large. This Monday, we mark the biggest gathering for World Mental Health Day at Hudson Yards but we are excited for the future since this collaboration will continue for years ahead.”

Again, the families of Peter DeSalvo, Yocheved Gourarie, Franklin Washington and Shiv Kulkarni were not included.

“If you have a heart sit down with us,” Avremi Gourarie said, hoping the executives of Related will hear. “and we will give you ideas for how to spend your money in a way that can benefit mankind.”

If your life or someone else’s is in imminent danger, please call 911. If you are in crisis and need immediate help, please call the Suicide and Crisis Hotline: 988
If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide, counselors are available 24/7 to listen and support you at NYC Well by texting, calling, or chatting online:
• Text WELL to 65173
• Call 1-888-NYC-WELL
• Chat online:
“After three suicides, at what point does the artistic vision take a back seat to safety?”
- Lowell Kern in 2021, Chair of Community Board 4
“I would just hope that Related, having their resources and us having our passions, if we, together, can somehow come together, I think we can actually make a difference.”
- Shilpa Kulkarni
“I just got the answering machine, and I said, ‘This is Colleen DeSalvo, Peter’s mother, and I would like to speak to someone about what happened. I just need to talk to someone about this.’ And I never got a response back.”
- Colleen DeSalvo