Smoooooooke on the waaaaaater….

Anyone who works in the computer industry knows that after awhile the job can get a little droll to say the least. How many times can you hear the same problem without spontaneously chucking memory cards like shurikens in Kung-Fu flick? That’s especially dangerous for me as I can pretty much hit anything dead-on like Bullseye from the ill-fated Dare Devil film…but I digress.

Every once and awhile I’ll get a good challenge, and this week was one of those times.

I came into possession of a computer which had been severely damaged in a fire. All the owners wanted was the data off the hard drive. Now I really had no idea what I was getting into until I actually saw the system… after seeing it, I would be amazed if I actually got the data off the computer. The front of the case had almost completely burned/melted off. The optical drives were both melted and destroyed, and the entire case was covered in a wet silt… the combination of thick, acrid smoke and water.

A couple of things worried me about the job, as first the surrounding room had been heated to around 316C, melting the case, burning everything around it, and super-heating the components. The saving grace being that it was tucked in a computer desk near the floor, as the outer surface burned the guts of the system were mainly spared. Still the heat would be an unavoidable factor, as would the water… Two things that don’t play well with electronics.

In order for me to successfully get data off the drive, all the solders on the drive will have had to held… Solder will melt at around 190C, half as hot as the room would have been. Also, the plastic components (IDE interface, power interface, and flat-ribbon cable from the read/write head to the controller) will had to have survived. Depending on the grade of plastic any of those components could melt anywhere above 150C. Going by the numbers, everything was pointing to sending this thing off to a data-recovery expert.

Still, the rear of the system had avoided much of the heat, as none of the cables had melted, nor had the cooling fan… The metal structure of the case also showed no deformity. Upon opening the case, all of the components were blackened by that same watery silt and were still wet. The hard disk cage wasn’t damaged, so I removed the drive. On first inspection, all of the solders appeared to have held and the plastic connectors were fine. Besides the layer of silt, nothing appeared out of sort.

I flipped the drive over a couple of times to see if I could hear the read/write head slapping back and forth, it sounded solid (hopefully not too solid!). Next I removed the controller board and cleaned it off with some canned air, driving most of the moisture off of it and allowing it to thoroughly dry. Insulating foam on the back of the board hadn’t been affected by heat or water. Then just to get rid of the smell I wiped down the rest of the drive while waiting for the board to dry.

After an hour or so, I checked that everything was dry, and that the vent-hole was clear, and connected the drive to a test system. To my surprise, the drive spun up without error, and I was able to recover all the data. Pretty cool, ‘eh?

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