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Fourth suicide at the Vessel leads to calls for higher barriers
People walk past the Vessel at Hudson Yards in New York on Thursday, July 29, 2021, hours after a 14-year-old boy died by suicide there. The death, which was the fourth suicide at the tourist attraction in a year and a half, angered community members who have repeatedly called on developers to build higher barriers on the walkways and raised questions about the effectiveness of the structure’s suicide-prevention methods. Jeenah Moon/The New York Times.

by Ashley Wong and Michael Gold

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Just two months after the Vessel, a honeycomb-like spiral of staircases in Hudson Yards, reopened with design changes meant to lower the risk of suicides, a 14-year-old boy died by suicide there Thursday afternoon, the police said.

The death, which was the fourth suicide at the tourist attraction in a year and a half, angered community members who have repeatedly called on developers to build higher barriers on the walkways and raised questions about the effectiveness of the structure’s suicide-prevention methods.

The Vessel was closed after the death, and an investigation is underway. The structure, which is the centerpiece of the Hudson Yards complex on Manhattan’s Far West Side, rises 150 feet above the ground with waist-high glass barriers bordering its walkways.

It had closed in January, after two people killed themselves there within a month, and reopened in May. The developers, the Related Cos., did not raise the height of the barriers before reopening, as a local community board and suicide-prevention researchers had called for.

In a statement, an employee of Heatherwick Studio, the architecture studio that designed the Vessel, expressed frustration with the developers’ resistance to higher barriers.

“We designed safety barriers for the Vessel a while back,” said the employee, who was not authorized to speak publicly. “It’s now time to install these.”

Kimberly Winston, a spokesperson for Hudson Yards, said in a statement that a “full investigation” was being conducted.

“We are heartbroken by this tragedy, and our thoughts are with the family of the young person who lost their life,” Winston said.

Julio Matos, 28, from Philadelphia, said he was in line to ascend the Vessel at around noon Thursday and was speaking with workers about the structure’s policy preventing people from entering alone.

As the workers were telling him about the deaths that had led to the policy, Matos said, he heard a loud noise.

“After that, everybody just scattered,” said Matos, who added that he had never visited the Vessel before. “Everybody was just in panic mode.”

Matos said that security guards quickly pushed people away from the structure.

“I’m still trying to mentally process what I saw,” he said. “I’m still in shock.”

By Thursday afternoon, the entire plaza around the Vessel had been closed to the public with police tape, with security guards keeping people out at every entry point.

Studies have shown that fencing and barriers are effective at stopping or reducing suicide attempts. In the New York area, suicides and attempted suicides both decreased at the George Washington Bridge after netting and an 11-foot-high fence were installed in 2017.

Thousands flocked to the Vessel each day before the pandemic, climbing up the maze of staircases to pose for selfies and take in views of the city and the Hudson River.

After closing the structure in January, Related Cos. consulted for months with suicide-prevention experts, security experts and local elected officials about ways to limit further suicides at the site, a spokesman told The New York Times in May.

When the structure reopened, visitors were no longer permitted to enter it alone and had to travel in pairs or groups. Tickets went from free to $10, and signs were posted with messages discouraging suicides.

Lowell D. Kern, the chairman of Community Board 4, which covers the area, had called on the developers to make design changes after the first suicide occurred in February of last year.

“I’m very sad. This was entirely preventable,” he said Thursday.

“The community board has advised Related that the only surefire way to prevent this from happening is to raise the height of the barriers on the Vessel,” he added. “We sincerely hope that this time Related will take all this to heart.”

Kern said that community board members had met with a suicide prevention expert, who suggested installing netting or raising the height of the glass barriers. Raising the barriers by 7 or 8 feet would be enough, Kern said, and would still allow people to have a clear view of the city.

“Yes, technically it is a work of architecture, and I’m messing with the architect’s vision. But we are dealing with life-and-death issues,” Kern said. “Art and architecture have to take a back seat.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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