How A Presidential "Beast" Limo Almost Got Overrun In The Slums Of Mumbai
A secret service agent details the trials and tribulations of the presidential limo, which sound amazingly pedestrian.
The limousines that the U.S. Secret Service uses to drive around the President of the United States, nicknamed Beasts, are some of, if not the most specialized and sensitive cars out there on the road today. Still, under all the armor and other modifications, they are cars – or maybe more accurately trucks – that are designed, operated, and maintained by humans who sometimes make mistakes. So, things happen, including breakdowns. That's exactly what former Secret Service Agent Bill Gage says happened during President Barack Obama's visit to India in 2010, where one almost ended up stranded on the road after the brand new Beast overheated deep in the slums of Mumbai and again when an agent accidentally filled one of the gasoline-fueled vehicles with diesel.
Gage, who first joined the Secret Service in 2002 and was a Counter Assault Team (CAT) member, told these two stories about the Beast's time in India more than a decade ago in a recent episode of The Team House podcast. CATs ride in other vehicles in any Presidential Motorcade and provide an immediate tactical response force should the convoy get ambushed or find itself in any other kind of serious contingency scenario. You can read more about the complete structure of a typical Presidential Motorcade in this past War Zone feature.
Gage did not say when exactly either of the two incidents he described took place, but said that they both happened in Mumbai. Obama visited India between Nov. 6 and Nov. 9, 2010, in what was his first trip to the country as President. He traveled to both New Delhi, the country's capital, and Mumbai, its largest city and a key financial center, during the visit.
In Mumbai, among other things, he paid tribute to the victims of a major terrorist attack there in 2008. During these four days in India, he also met with both then-Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and then-President Pratibha Patil, and addressed the country's parliament. Obama also traveled to India in 2015, but did not visit Mumbai during that trip.
Gage further explained that the issue of the car overheating took place before Obama arrived. "It's [the Beast] gotta be there before the President arrives," Gage said. "The threat level was so high on that trip and we flew in a day ahead of Obama on that trip."
He also said that the vehicle that overheated was a "brand new" presidential limousine that had been extensively "field-tested." Available pictures, some of which are seen earlier in this story, of the limos used during President Obama's Trip to India in 2010 all appear to show examples of a version of the Beast, which was externally styled after the Cadillac DTS sedan, that first emerged at President George W. Bush's first inauguration in January 2001.
However, Obama's first inauguration in January 2009 had been the public debut of a new design, which is externally reminiscent of the Cadillac STS. This sounds like the model that Gage was referring to on the podcast.
Just to note, another version, with an outward look similar to the Cadillac CT6, appeared in 2018. The Secret Service will typically have multiple sets of Beasts ready to go for major events and overseas trips. A single motorcade will also have more than one, with the empty cars serving as decoys, as well as backups in case one is immobilized for any reason. Seven Beasts, a mixture of STS and CT6-styled types, were notably part of a massive motorcade used for President Joe Biden's inauguration in January.
All of the Beasts have been designed and built by General Motors and are understood to use more robust SUV or truck chassis to handle the added weight of the vehicle's armor and other unique features. The exact specifications of the Beasts are highly classified, but are said to have protection against small arms and other light weaponry, including rocket-propelled grenades, as well as mines. They reportedly have a host of other defensive and general safety features, including an onboard fire suppression system, run-flat tires, and an interior hermetically sealed against nuclear, biological, and chemical (NBC) threats. Other specialized capabilities, including night vision driving systems, a secure communications suite, and more, round out the features of these cars, which you can read more about here.
"I know what some of the capabilities are. I'm not gonna get into it on the podcast," Gage said. "Some are really high classified that I don't even know about."
Regardless of the exact model of Beast and its capabilities, Gage explained that all of the elements of the motorcade had arrived in Mumbai a day ahead of Obama. The plan was to stage the vehicles at a U.S. State Department facility in the city for the next day's travel.
"So, we land, and, for whatever reason, we had to drive through the slums of Mumbai," he recalled. "It was hot as a m-fer, man, that day in India."
The temperatures in Mumbai were in the low 90s between Nov. 6 and Nov. 9, 2010, according to Weather Underground, in line with average temperatures there for that time of year.
"Well, dammit, the thing overheated on this Indian road through the slums. It overheats, like steam is coming out of the engine," Gage continued. "Nobody's in it, we're driving an empty motorcade to get to this storage facility, this embassy offsite, and the driver comes on and he's like 'guys, I gotta stop, this thing is like redlining it's so hot.'"
So they do and "thousands of Indians are coming around and this is a classified piece of U.S. government property," he said "The [CAT] team leader, he was like 'guys, let's take up positions around the limo so this thing can get cooled off.'"
"Thousands of Indians are coming out of these slums, man, and we're like 'what are we gonna do?' We can't shoot these people," he added. "We can't just start wasting Indian civilians because they want to touch this limousine, but it ended up cooling down enough and we were able to get to this offsite."
In the end, Gage said that the limo was stopped on the road for between 10 and 15 minutes. It's not hard to see how even this short amount of time stopped could have been a major security issue. Of course, had President Obama been in the motorcade at the time, the Secret Service would certainly have moved him into a backup Beast, but this would eliminated a decoy vehicle in the process. As Gage noted, the sensitive nature of the car means that there would still have been a particular need to ensure nothing happened to the stranded vehicle.
Later in the trip, disaster nearly struck again just four hours before the motorcade was due to take Obama to an event, according to Gage. They had stopped at an Indian gas station to fuel up beforehand and the Beast's driver had inadvertently begun filling the car's tank with diesel, despite it having a gasoline-fueled engine. Diesel doesn't work properly in engines designed to run off that fuel and can cause significant damage to the internals.
"I remember turning to him [the driver], his first name started with W, and I was filling up the CAT truck with unleaded, and I remember looking at him, and I was like, 'hey, W, that's diesel, man,' and the panic on his face," Gage remembered of the incident. "He said every cuss word."
"We had to get an Indian tow truck and Obama was supposed to go live, man, in like four hours to this major event," he continued.
Gage explained that the Secret Service's Transportation Section has an entire staff of highly trained mechanics with certifications straight from General Motors. However, he added that, while a contingent of them will travel where ever the presidential motorcade goes, they rarely get called upon to do anything.
"The look on these guys' faces," he said. "We were like, 'listen, man, we filled this thing up with like five or six gallons of diesel,' and they were just like so excited."
"These mechanics, unbelievable, in like four hours took this whole engine apart, drained all the fuel, cleaned the fuel pump," Gage continued. "Brand new fuel pump, brand new fuel filter, got this thing up and running, it was amazing ... in the heat of Mumbai, India."
Thankfully, in both of these instances, according to Gage, the Secret Service was able to get the Beast back up and running without any major impact on the rest of the trip, as one would expect from these highly trained professionals. This is also hardly the only time a Beast has found itself in a similar predicament during a U.S. President's visit overseas.
A Beast carrying President George W. Bush broke down in Rome, Italy, in 2007. As is seen in the video below, the President was quickly moved into one of the alternate Beasts in the motorcade.
In 2011, during Obama's visit to Ireland that year, one of these limos got stuck on a ramp while leaving at the U.S. Embassy in Dublin. Another Beast ended up on the back of a tow truck in Israel in 2013 while Obama was visiting that country, reportedly after another case of someone filling it with diesel instead of gasoline.
Still, Gage's recollections about the Mumbai trip offer a fascinating window into the more mundane trials and tribulations of the presidential motorcade.
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