Tragedy at The Vessel

Calls for suicide barriers went unheeded before fourth death at the tourist attraction in Hudson Yards

| 30 Jul 2021 | 03:58

The architects say they had designed safety partitions to deter suicides. The Community Board repeatedly urged Hudson Yards to install them.

But when a 14-year-old boy leapt to his death from The Vessel this week, the developer, Stephen M. Ross of Related Companies, said he thought they had done all they could to prevent this latest tragedy.

The suicide was the fourth since the opening of The Vessel, a dramatic centerpiece of Hudson Yards, the new neighborhood built atop the MTA rail yards on the far West Side.The tourist attraction is a lattice work of staircases that weave their way up 150 feet, or about 15 stories, above the plaza of Hudson Yards. It has been described variously as resembling a honeycomb and a transparent pineapple.

Even before its opening, in March of 2019, there had been warnings that the structure’s 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 wrote of the design.

This chilling warning, written by Audrey Wachs in 2016, was quoted in a letter that Community Planning Board 4 wrote to officials of Related Companies and Hudson Yards Development Corporation in March 2020, after a young man did just what Wachs had warned about.

He walked up the Vessel and leapt to his death. “Because the Vessel’s chest-high barrier is all that separates the platform from the edge, the likelihood of a similar, terribly sad loss of life cannot be ignored,” The chair of the planning board, Lowell D. Kern wrote in that March 2020 letter to the officials.

He added that he was “heartened” that Related will “enhance suicide prevention training of its security staff and has reached out to suicide-prevention experts.” But he urged further action.

“While it is true that ultimately nothing can stop a person determined to find a way to harm themselves, it is also true that installing adequate physical barriers on high places can prevent or substantially reduce suicides, especially impulsive ones.”

No Higher Barriers Installed

Related did not install such barriers. In January of 2021, there were two more suicides within a month. The Vessel was shut for three months. When it was reopened, Related announced a set of suicide prevention methods, including charging for admission (presumably to reduce impulsive acts) and requiring visitors to walk up in groups.

But again no higher barriers were installed.

Again, Kern and the planning board wrote the the Hudson Yards officials saying they were taking a needless risk.

“Putting up this barrier is the only mechanism to truly prevent someone who is determined to jump,” Kern told Straus News Friday after the 14-year-old’s death.

“That’s what works. We told Related that. They just acted as if, ‘We know better.”

Related again closed the Vessel and said it was investigating. Stephen M. Ross, the founder of related, told the Daily Beast said he wanted to consider every safety possibility, including closing the Vessel for good.

“I mean, we thought we had covered everything,” The Daily Beast quoted Ross as saying.

Kern said that was bunk. He said he had spoken repeatedly to high ranking officials at Related about the need for the prevention barriers, although not to Ross personally.

“They were told what needed to be done and they didn’t do it,” Kern said.

Barriers would need to be about eight feet high, double the current barriers. There is no record of what this would cost, so it is not clear whether Related’s decision was about cost or a concern about disrupting the aesthetics of the structure.

The 14-year-old was reported to have leapt to his death in front of his family. Ross was quoted as saying that “a family of five does not fit any profile” of potential suicide that security officers were trained to deter.

After this most recent death, the London based architect, Heatherwick Studios, leaked a statement to the New York Times which, according to the newspaper, “expressed frustration with the developer’s resistance to higher barriers,” suggesting aesthetics was not the issue.

“We designed safety barriers for the Vessel a while back,” an employee of Heatherwick was quoted as saying. “It’s now time to install these.” The Heatherwick “employee” was not further identified.

Heatherwick, which is also the architect of the brand new Little Island off 14th Street in the Hudson River, referred questions about the vessel to Related, which did not respond.

“From the community board’s position, Related could have prevented this and they should have prevented this,” Kerns said. “This young man’s death is on them. I understand they do feel great remorse that this has happened.

“They have a bigger responsibility than to feel bad about it.”

“Putting up this barrier is the only mechanism to truly prevent someone who is determined to jump.” Lowell D. Kern, Community Board 4