A Perfectly Executed Disaster

By Shamus Posted Thursday Jul 17, 2008

Filed under: Random 49 comments

Sometime during the run of DMotR, my main hard drive filled up, mostly with movie stills. While tearing apart one of the many busted old computers that’s been donated to me, I found a 40GB hard drive. Vague portents had been scrawled on the top in magic marker, indicating that the drive was possibly operational, but not to be trusted.

I tested and found it to be functional. 40GB isn’t exactly spacious, but if I moved my games over then I’d have my important work on the trusted Western Digital and the frivolous stuff on the tenuous Maxtor. If it failed, the only thing I’d lose would be my save games. Bah.

As the months wore on my main HD continued to stretch at the seams, and the Maxtor was entrusted with more sensitive duties. Inevitably I started trusting the drive, more or less out of habit.

While moving the machine around dealing with my keyboard problem, that secondary drive at last failed.

Pfft. Big deal. I’ll swap in another drive and re-install my games. I mean, the only thing on it was my games. Oh wait. I also had all my game screenshots for… Nooooooo!

A majority of my Screenshots for Stolen Pixels was on that drive.
I’ve just abruptly gone from having about three weeks of lead time – perhaps four – to having nothing. I’ve already submitted the one set to go live on Friday, which means I have just a couple of days to come up with a new hard drive so I can install a game so I can take screenshots so I can make a comic.

The worst of the loss is my collection of World of Warcraft screenshots, which were tough to acquire. Some of the jokes were very complicated and required up to four people to pull off. Four people, all in the right zone, as the right characters, at the right time of day. All together they represented several hours of work. The people in my guild were nice enough to donate some of their playtime to help me out, and now those shots are gone. (Actually I might still have a couple that were moved to the main HD for editing. I might be able to make one comic out of them. Maybe.)

The only thing I have available at the moment is Guild Wars, which I inexplicably installed on the main drive. I’ve tried before and found it’s tricky to make comics in that game for a variety of petty reasons.

The worst thing is that I have nobody to blame but myself. I put valuable data on an untrustworthy source and it failed at a bad moment. I regularly back up the data on my main drive, but I never bothered with the capricious Maxtor.

The drive technically works. It’s recognized by the BIOS during boot. It’s recognized by Windows. But Windows claims it’s “unformatted”, and helpfully offers to format it for me. (NO!) A HD recovery service isn’t feasible. (Way too expensive, particularly given that I’d need a very large number of files.)

I get really edgy when I’m rubbing up against a publishing deadline, and I’m really up against a deadline now.


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49 thoughts on “A Perfectly Executed Disaster

  1. I sympathize. My GF lost most of her HHD right before finals. I had to buy her a new one and install a new OS for her ASAP. In the mean time she was using my computer to go through Gmail looking for old versions of all her notes…

    It won’t help for now, but:
    Flicr. Google photos. Your _new best friends_.

  2. Ross says:

    I haven’t any personal experience with it, but have you considered trying SpinRite? It’s got some incredible testimonials out there from people whose only choices were dump the drive or pay thousands for a HD recovery service.

    It’s around an $90 purchase, and I can’t guarantee it would work, but if you really lost a lot of valuable data, it might be something to consider getting. And of course, even if it doesn’t work, you can use it on your other drives from here on out to maintain them and ensure you’re on top of drive failures.

  3. Lady Kat says:

    Ouch. That hurts. I lost a research paper for college a couple years back in the same manner. Not quite the same, but I sympathize.

  4. GreyDuck says:

    Bah. I have a Maxtor drive on my desk that “technically” works, but in this case it’s one that had the weird “130GB fix” applied to it, and when the boot drive with the “fix” configuration was lost, we found ourselves unable to get at the data. Nothing major, just all of my friends’ music and videos and games and… yeah.

    This drive, too, is recognized by Windows as being in need of a good formatting. 250GB of stuff I’d like to not lose, but no. Apparently there’s no way to re-“fix” the drive on a new box without wiping it clean anyway.

    So, in short: I feel your pain, man.

  5. Locri says:

    Depending on what happened to the drive, it sounds like it might have just been the FAT (File Allocation Table) that was corrupted. Your data might still be intact, in that case. I don’t have time at the moment but there are recovery programs out there for cheap or free that might fix it for you.

    Also, like Ross, I’ve heard SpinRite works wonders. Never tried it myself though.

  6. Mike the ExDragon says:

    I was just going to suggest spinrite also. I’ve used it once (trying to figure out why pulling a partial vacuum on notebook hard drives was killing them–doesn’t everyone pull partial vacuums on their hardware?) and it is not for the techno-timid. If the data is worth an investigation of a few hours and spinrite’s purchase price, but not really the multi-hundred cost of a commercial recovery service, go for it. I suspect most recovery services consist of a boiler room with a handful of people running spinrite, but maybe I’m just cynical.

  7. Your other basic chance (beyond SpinRite) is to grab a Linux-based LiveCD and try to access the drive that way, or find a local guru that can work the Linux voodoo for you.

    Note that I am not saying “install Linux”; there are special-purpose rescue CDs that for your purposes happen to run Linux, but that’s not the main focus. You boot from the CD, and it doesn’t do anything to your main hard drives.

    A linux guy might be able to pull the entire filesystem off the disk even if certain critical sectors are gone and Windows won’t recognize it. No guarantees.

    Someone else may be better able to recommend a specific such CD, I haven’t used one in many months.

  8. Factoid says:

    I second the call on SpinRite. It’s performed miracles for me before. You should also try WinHex, which is a great drive-forensics tool I’ve used for a long time. It has a demo that would give you an idea if you’ve got anything recoverable or not. I think it even lets you recover files that are less than 128 or 256kb in size for free. I guess it depends if you JPG your screenshots or leave them as BMPs or TIFFs.

    It sounds kind of like you didn’t lose the whole drive, just the file system, which can be recovered MUCH more easily than a bit-by-bit recovery that would be done by an outside service.

    Those things are complete rip-offs. In most cases they repair your hard drive completely within an hour, and then proceed to send you a ransom list of the thousands of individual files with price-tags next to each one.

  9. Mormo says:


    Long time reader and enjoyer, first time poster…

    Try testdisk and photorec, free opensource programs. They are available for windows. Photorec recovers (unfragmented) files based on data carving, so if the filesystem is busted it doesn’t matter. Testdisk recovers partitions, so if the HD partition table is gone that could fix it without the tiresome recovery process (photorec does not recover filenames or directories!—it operates on the raw disk).

    You can also use dd_rescue (note spelling) from a linux livecd if you believe the physical disk is failing; I’ve had success with RIPLinux, but it’s a bit technical at least on the command line and dd_rescue will only help you get the raw data off of a failing physical disk in the most efficient way, not recover the files within the data. I used dd_rescue to image a failing drive and learn that the hardware failure was actually pretty localized; the filesystem, however, was apparently unrecoverable. I used photorec on the disk image I got from dd_rescue.

    Good luck!

  10. yd says:

    Does it spin up? If not, try freezing it overnight (put it in a static bag inside a ziplock bag with rice or something to absorb condensation). And try for recovery. Work quickly, but this has been known to recover data on multiple occasions.

    First google match, but this is well known:


  11. Factoid says:

    Oh, and I forgot to mention that a critical step in doing data recovery is to always work on a COPY of the drive whenever possible.

    If you have access to any kind of sector-by-sector imaging tool, I would recommend cloning your disk if possible and doing any recovery on that.

    Obviously this doesn’t help you with your immediate need for HAVING an extra disk, but hopefully you have a best buy close by. External USB drives are cheap and useful for backups. I bought a 160GB drive for 70 bucks.

    You should also ask the escapist if they have an FTP site where you could store your stuff off-site.

  12. Gothmog says:

    I’ve recovered quite a few things off of ‘dead’ HDs in my time- I used to work Western Digital phone support… only for four weeks, I’ll grant you. Thankfully, I was offered a better paying and FAR less depressing job somewhere else. What a terrible, terrible job that was. Ugh.

    Anyway- what have you done to trouble-shoot? What kind of Maxtor (model #) is it? Have you run Maxtor diagnostics? (Seatools is probably what you’re looking for there) What was the result? Have you booted to a linuxCD and see if it sees your HD? What about some of the fancy tools on Hiren’s Boot CD?

    I’m sure you have more geeks in your fan base that will be happy to help! Anyone?

  13. evilmrhenry says:

    Linux tends to more “permissive” when it comes to dealing with bad drives. Go download and burn Knoppix. It’s fairly easy to deal with, will autodetect most hardware, and has a reasonable chance of reading data off the bad hard drive.

  14. Tyrel Lohr says:

    I have had to do data recovery for some of my clients before using Runtime Software’s GetDataBack software. It does work, though depending on how dead the drive is you may or may not be able to recover anything usable.

    For one client whose drive had a catastrophic failure right after she transferred her entire photo collection over onto it, I was able to recover probably about half of the photos. Some were all there, while for others it was just the first half of a photo.

    Purchasing some data recovery software may or may not be worth a try for you. In my line of work I have had to use it a few times, enough to make it worth my while at least.

  15. Derek says:

    My company sells a program that I think is really amazing for recovering files.
    Recover My Files

    It will scan your disk, with the option of ignoring partitions and file systems, and it recognizes _tons_ of file types, including lots of save game files and graphics files. Try the demo, which will do the scan, and if it recovers the files you need, you can pay to upgrade, and then you’ll be able to save the found files elsewhere.


  16. Kerin says:

    Shamus, I’d recommend either Ubuntu or the Ubuntu Rescue Remix liveCD. Both give you excellent options for digging into murdered drives, and there’s a good chance you can pull good stuff out of it.

  17. R4byde says:

    A dead hard drive? Man, that just really Bytes! (I’M sorry I couldn’t resist, please don’t kill me!) Just be sure you’re well protected from the legions of zombies -AKA your fans.- that are sure to appear outside your home if this cuts a chunk out’a their web-comic reading.

    You can add me to the list of people that have heard good things about Spinrite, but never actually used it. If that fails, I recommend contacting your nearest “Vampire Hunting Roman Catholic Priest”â„¢; your harddrive is clearly in dire need of an exorcism!

  18. RibbitRibbit says:

    I second a Linux Rescue/LiveCD. There are lots of them around, but you can even use a simple Ubuntu LiveCD (assuming your PC has enough RAM, although I believe 512MB should be enough). I used it to access data on an “Operating System Not Found” Windows XP installation.

    Other than that, it’s probably the FAT or MBR that’s gone to hell. There are lots of programs that should help you with this, usually by trying to guess the install layout; google up, don’t lose all hope yet.

  19. Roxysteve says:

    Isn’t it funny that all the people who work with computers for a living, who spend hours dealing with the issues they kick up and advising others, never seem to have a backup?

    I’m the same. I have the disk I want to use to run Ghost on, I just never get round to buying Ghost…

    We used to have a joke back in the days of steam computers. It went like this:

    Backups – something you never have time to do between recovering from all the head crashes.

    Luck bringing the disk back from the dead. There are people who can do it for you, but it will cost mucho dineiro if they pull out the platters to do it.

  20. Jeff says:

    I’ll forth the recommendation for SpinRite, I’ve nothing but good thoughts towards GRC.

  21. scragar says:

    Have you tried using a ddrescue CD or the linux application foremost Shamus? while the first is designed to restore a whole partition or disk the second can be used to recover individual files on systems with corrupt formating or broken partition tables. Both should work with fat or ntfs(provided libntfs is installed) formated partitions btw.

  22. Changling bob says:

    My advice: try a linux livecd, and see if you can recover things off it using that.

    Also, yay for not reading the comment thread first, I see I have been beaten to my point quite considerably :)

  23. Ian says:

    Isn't it funny that all the people who work with computers for a living, who spend hours dealing with the issues they kick up and advising others, never seem to have a backup?

    Not so much.

    Really, the more computer savvy a person is, the more space they generally consume. As more important data piles up it becomes harder and harder to back up on affordable media (try backing up 20GB on DVDs; it gets annoying quickly). Plus, most peoples’ data is in flux to the point that week-old backups are quickly obsoleted.

    It gets especially hairy when you’re dealing with a large group of files. I do a bit of photography in my spare time and when I’m shoot digital I always shoot RAW. A typical losslessly compressed RAW file from my camera weighs in at around 4-5MB and I usually shoot 50-100 shots when I go out, sometimes more. It’s certainly not unusual for me to shoot 500MB worth of shots in a single outing. Backing that up, as well as everything else, can add up to a lot of DVDs.

  24. scragar says:

    @ Ian : Most computer users with lots of experience tend to back my things up online. I have a willing server who for only a small fee(it’s £20/year for more space than I’ll ever use) I get to upload everything I’ve got once every so often via FTP(actualy very secure, I encrypt everything first, and the decription key is stored on both a CD and Pen drive, so secure enough for all needs), I even wrote my own script to do the backup, since I wanted to be sure no-one would be cracking my encryption.

  25. sithson says:

    Good luck getting the data back! I know how had it can be!

  26. Bob says:

    Sorry to hear this, Shamus. Just a little hint: if you really want your data back, do not try yourself. Just call some professional data recovery service. It’s gonna cost some, but chances of success are much higher.

  27. Mistwraithe says:

    It may just be that the partitions are no longer visible (corruption in the partition table) and if you use something like Acronis Disk Director to recover partitions then all may be well.

    You can probably download a trial version too, though I don’t know if it is hobbled in some way.

  28. OldGrovers says:

    Doesn’t help now – but you may want to start using an online backup service. I use Mozy Backup and so far I’m happy. I’ve got 37 gbs backed up to there so far!

    It does a good job of doing incrementals, so once it has done the first backup, you don’t even notice it.

    It also has a web restore client, which has been handy when I was away from home and really needed a document from my home hard drive

  29. Xale D says:

    I’ll also point out that if you want freeware options, you should check out Tech Support Alert, a site with a Freeware Wiki for all your tech program needs.

  30. Dev Null says:

    Having heard all the horror stories, when I was writing my thesis I had weekly dated archive copies stored on 4 different machines in 2 different hemispheres… and I _still_ had to ask my supervisor to send me back a review copy I’d mailed him at one point, because all 4 had gotten corrupt.

    They can smell fear you know…

  31. Rubes says:

    If Windows can at least recognize the drive, you’re probably in decent shape. Try some of the things mentioned above, and I’ll bet you can get most of your stuff back.

  32. LafinJack says:

    I have an extra 200GB external harddrive somewhere that you can have, I outgrew it a while back and it’s been collecting dust ever since.

  33. ArchU says:

    God damn it, people. The best, free, data recovery software that exists is PC Inspector File Recovery, and it’s easy to use. You can get it from download.com – a reliable source because it’s run by C-Net, who have the reputation of their TV show at stake.


    Go there and get it. It can recover lost drives, undelete files and find lost data – merely for the cost of the 4MB of bandwidth it takes to download it.

    I personally put my seal of approval on this software. At work we found that Norton Utilities recovered effectively 1% of disks that claimed unformatted status, whereas PCI smote NU with an astonishing 99% success rate.

  34. Justin says:

    I feel your pain. I just got my workload for the end of my semester, and my laptop died. It’s still under warranty, but I’ve been told all of my documents are likely lost. To make matters worse, I just discovered that I’ve had 5GB of online storage available to me the whole time. I hope some of the recovery techniques your legion of fans suggested work.

  35. JB says:

    Many good tips here, so let me add mine, short and clear.

    1. Try to make a file copy of the whole disk, sector for sector. You will be happy you did this if the disk suddenly stops working at all
    2. Use a file recovery tool. Preferably one that is intelligent and is able to recognize file types, and peace them together. And preferably one that works against the image copy of your disk

    And I can also recomend using a boot CD with the necessary tools on, just in case a virus or other malware is the cause for disk corruption.

    I won’t recommend any particular tool, since I don’t have enough actual experience to compare.

    Good luck.

  36. Davesnot says:

    Dude! .. rest assured that all your data is sitting there for you… you just can’t get it.

    I just figured everyone else was giving you advice.. I figured I’d help out too.

  37. Joshua says:

    Aw, man, you’re screwed. There is an absolute 0% chance of you recovering even a kilobyte of anything from your drive. That’s right, you can’t do anything, all the memory is lost forever and ever and ever, and it’s completely impossible to retrieve it. At all. Ever.

    Just figured I’d go against the masses, you know.

    I know how this feels. My everything seems to die randomly.

    I test a Linux LiveCD. I just put it in and reboot, see that it works, take it out, reboot. Blue screen of unholy death. Over and over and over again.

    There’s a storm (this happens often in Oklahoma). My computer dies. Blue screen of unholy death or just a black screen upon reboot.

    I turn my fancy new TV on. My computer reboots and cannot successfully boot back up. That’s true, too. I think it might have something to do with everything in my house affecting everything else. My fan turns on and my speakers click really loud. The living room TV turns on and my monitor goes black for a second. I turn my light on and my TV flickers. It’s weird. I’ve seen stuff like this, but not on this scale.

    I install a game (normal game, nothing off the internet or anything like that) and I am told to reboot so some changes can be made. The system file is corrupted.

    I stopped dealing with it after a while and am now running a copy of window slightly higher in temperature than other copies.

  38. Daemian Lucifer says:

    My condolences for the drive shamus.I once had my main 200gb drive get itself destroyed by a virus.And beyond repair.Just 10% of it was saved,and most of it was crap,unfortunatelly.Lucky for me that Im good friends with a guy that does drive recovery(and other various computer stuff),so at least I had that saved.(always make friends with automechanics and hardware experts,it saves huge amounts of money)

  39. Alexis says:

    I hate Maxtor, I’ve vowed never to buy another of their drives as long as I live.

    Have you tried the WoW Model Viewer? Machinimators do unbelievable things with that and some other tricks. Right now you probably need to produce content, not fiddle with new tools, but longterm it will save you time.

    You could even contact Olibith or Baron Soosdon and see if they’ll give you a quick rundown. I bet they get asked all the time, but you have a proven track record of actually FINISHING stuff. There might be some community sites etc with howtos.

  40. Jabor says:

    You know, you could probably get some sort of data recovery software and recover at least some of the files from the drive. Given that it technically “works”, the problem could be just some bad sectors in the file table, and depending on the state of the drive (did you keep it fairly defragged, or what?) you could recover a fair bit of the data just by letting the software sift through the drive for a few hours. If at least part of the file table is still there, recovering the files indexed by that part would be quick and easy, and while the other parts will take much longer, it’s still doable.

    I had a similar problem just recently. A couple of sectors go bad in the MFT (and a little elsewhere on the disk), CHKDSK tries to “clean it up” and deletes half of the still-good part! An overnight run with EasyRecovery and I have everything back except for a couple of iso’s I could easily replace.

    Your mileage may vary, of course, but it’s still something to try before giving up entirely.

  41. mark says:

    put it in the freezer for a few hours (wrapped in dry plastic bags so it doesnt get any moisture in it) and then try it again. cooling it may be enough to breath life back in.

  42. Lonster says:

    Aero Data Recovery, they charge a flat $300 per disk drive unit.

    Look them up. They make you buy a USB hard drive from them to return your data on. Other than that, pretty nice!

  43. Derek K says:

    “Isn't it funny that all the people who work with computers for a living, who spend hours dealing with the issues they kick up and advising others, never seem to have a backup?”

    I used to (politely) berate people all the time when I did tech support for not having backups. Inevitably, they would ask “Well, how do you do *you* backups, then?” “Eh, I don’t have anything worth worrying about.”

    I know, I know. Pot, kettle.

    But now, that’s really my strategery. Anything I have that I *need* is stored on two computers, and one or more online services. And then if things go bad, I’m losing my mega-gig installs of games, and my config files, and that’s about it. My bookmarks are all on a flash drive. Anything else is just an overnight install, really.

  44. capital L says:

    I had a similar problem with a Maxtor drive– still mechanically operational, with windows detecting it as unformatted (My hunch was that somehow the allocation table was fux0red)– and I purchased a $50 dollar program called “GetDataBack.” It worked as advertised and I was able to recover all of my data. I strongly recommend checking out their website, you can download a trial version that will scour your dead drive and list what it finds, then you purchase a license and can recover the files. (Or at least that’s how it worked when I got it 2 years ago.)

  45. Roxysteve says:

    @ Ian.

    No, it is funny, and a perfect illustration of the word “ironic” too. A modern “carpenter’s/tailor’s/cobbler’s wife” adage.

    I don’t see the correlation between computer savviness and taking up more room (I assume you meant more digital room), but that’s not important. If you are needing to back up huge amounts of data you care about you should long ago have investigated “Ghosting” to a USB drive.

    I used to use “Ditto” Travan tape for backups on my old Win95 machine. Took several hours to do each time but saved my life when the boot disc failed. Nothing lost. Ghosting is even easier. You don’t have to understand how backup/restore works to use it. Disk fails, replace disk and write the ghosted image back to it from USB. There are scenarios that don’t even involve re-installing the OS.

    Easier still, RAID 1. You buy a second internal hard drive and it is used as a mirror for the first. Everything written to the one disk is written to the other. A complete waste of perfectly good photo storage space until that failure, of course, but afterwards a total life-saver. Total down time when one side of the mirror fails? 0 seconds.

    There are also, as has been said, online services that are out there. I have direct experience that some of them are not as intuitive as they might be (for example, my next-cube neighbour’s kid lost a year’s course work because the Apple web backup she had signed up for wasn’t properly configured on hert machine and she thought “it just works”). I have a problem with web services inasmuch as I don’t want my data at someone else’s beck and call, but your mileage may be variant and these may be what the doctor ordered for you.


  46. Andy Adams-Moran says:

    Shamus: I’d be willing to donate $10 towards the cost of a hard disk recovery service. Anyone else?

  47. Kevin says:

    Dude, I SO feel your pain. You have my sympathies.

  48. ArchU says:

    Shamus – any luck on this so far?

  49. jim says:

    first that happened to me was new years eve.
    Microsoft suddenly wanted to make sure my registration key is valid. Apparently, it wasn’t.. A simple window reminded me of genuine benefits or something. it didn’t do anything, but I could only get rid of it by killing its process.

    Problem solved. back to what I was doing. I needed something off my slow, FAT 30gb hd, which had evaporated. e: was gone. I looked at device manager and the drive was hardware was still alive. after a restart that done nothing, I formatted it, as NTFS, and it worked fine.

    two days later, it vanished once more. I looked up the problem, and on some forum, someone suggested to uninstall the hard drive from device manager, and it worked. it didn’t have my pre 2010 data, but at least it was alive.

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