Joellen Tobias was driving her cab through the Loop Tuesday evening in search of a fare when it began raining wood and steel as she drove under the "L" tracks.
"All of a sudden, iron rails and wood and debris were falling from the tracks and they bounced off my cab," Tobias said. "It was the most frightening thing I was ever under because it was hitting the front, it was hitting the top, it was hitting the back.
"I'm just looking for fares, doing my thing and then, 'Boom, boom, boom.' It never stopped. I didn't know what to do, it was like a sci-fi movie," she said.
Overhead an Orange Line train had derailed and was pulling out steel rail fasteners along a stretch of inner track at Van Buren and LaSalle streets, causing them to spill onto the street below, according to transit officials.
The curved steel fasteners slide into brackets that hold the tracks into place. CTA spokesman Brian Steele said the derailment "caused some of them to become dislodge. Not every single one. They fell in multiple places."
He said the fasteners fit into the brackets like dead-bolts and it's rare for them to be pulled out during a derailment. "It would take a great deal of force, which is what apparently occurred when the wheels derailed," he said.
Tobias said she became more frightened as the train kept biting into the tracks above. "There were a lot of cars on the train," she said. "I didn't know what to do. I panicked a little bit and pulled to the left to get out of the way."
She said she struggled through traffic and finally found an opening on the side of the street as debris continued to bounce off the cab she had rented for the evening.
"I'm watching the train continue on and its going pop, pop, bing, bing, pop, pop all the way down Van Buren," she said. "People were all in shock over it. All I could see was the iron nails, it was like raining nails. It didn't break the windows but it damaged the cab, there are dings all over it."
Like others she called 911.
Tobias considers herself lucky that she didn't get hurt, but the accident still cost her. She said she had to file a police report and by the time she was done, it was about 9 p.m and her shift ended at midnight. She said she was too distraught to pick up any fares.
Today she had to return the car to the company to see if it is drivable, bringing along one of the green metal rail fasteners that hit the taxi.
Joseph Williams, 65, of Flossmoor said he had parked his 1998 Lincoln Town Car while waiting to pick up his wife from her job at Federal Plaza.
"When it first hit the car, it sounded like a gunshot," said Williams, a U.S. Navy veteran. "It was like I was in Vietnam again."
Williams, who also called 911, said he started to get out of his car but thought better of it when he saw all of the debris falling from the tracks. "It was like the sky was falling," he said. "When the metal hit the street, you could hear it."
He said he waited for the train to pass overhead before he left his car.
"The train was screeching all the way down, the wheel was cutting up the tracks as it went down the tracks," he said. "The wood started falling, it was like a buzz saw going down the tracks and cutting up the tracks into bits and pieces."
He noticed dozens of the fasteners on cars, on the sidewalk and on the street.
He said his car was left with dents, scratches and scrapes and he expects the whole car will have to be repainted. He expects the damage to run between $700 to $1,500.
"It was traumatic because I didn't know what was going on," he said. "If one of those clamps would have fallen on anybody, they would have gotten hurt because they were awful heavy."
Lance Lewis was driving his mother's 2005 Toyota Camry on Van Buren when the metal debris began to fall. "Van Buren was littered with these little green like horse shoes that fell from the sky like leaves," he said.
Lewis said it took CTA officials and police a while to close off the streets to traffic and pedestrians. He said he called 911 to warn police to block off the area.
"The trains were still running, there weren't any CTA personnel out there or police personnel out there," Lewis said. "The city really dodged a bullet because someone could have been really hurt."
He said his mother's car sustained damage to the passenger door area. "I don't know how there wasn't anyone injured," he said.
Maintenance crews worked through the night and finished repairs by 1:30 a.m., CTA officials said. Service was back to normal by the morning commute.
Steele said CTA officials were still investigating the incident.
Tribune reporters Rosemary Regina Sobol and Adam Sege contributed.
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