A family member recently came to me with a portable hard drive that Windows could not read. After confirming I was seeing the same issue on my own PC, I went down the rabbit hole of attempting to recover as much data as possible from the failed drive. I documented the path I took below, as well as some notes if you ever find yourself in the same position.

cloning the damaged drive

If you have a drive that can’t be read anymore, chances are that only a portion of it is dead, and many (if not most) sectors might still be readable. The more time passes between initial failure and imaging the drive, the higher the chance the drive might continue to fail as it powers on/off.

GNU ddrescue is a great recovery tool that copies from a block device to another. I won’t go into details about the documentation, since you can read that yourself, but it does its job very well. Below are some important notes about how to install and use it.

Be sure to install it by using sudo apt-get install gddrescue, ddrescue is an older, incomplete script.

ddrescue requires that the input file be visible when you run sudo lsblk, so if the device doesn’t even register there, unfortunately this won’t help you.

You will need an output disk that can contain the entire failed disk, not just the amount you used, so if you have a 1 TB hard drive you are attempting to recover, I recommend using at least a 2 TB hard drive to store the output. ddrescue copies block for block, and doesn’t know anything about the contents.

ddrescue can be run with a mapfile that can allow the process to be picked up at any time, so you can take a break or shutdown your computer if desired. I’ve read that some people don’t run it too long in one session to prevent the damaged disk from getting too hot, but that seems anecdotal.

The actual command I ended up running was sudo ddrescue -r 2 /dev/damaged_drive /media/large_backup_drive/image /media/large_backup_drive/logfile.

The final output file is called image and the mapfile is called logfile on the large_backup_drive in the above example. It also will attempt to retry bad sectors two additional times.

Lastly, be aware that this is a very time consuming process, especially when you start retrying sectors. For my 1 TB hard drive, in total ddrescue ran for over 70 hours to fully process and retry the failed sectors. In my case, ddrescue was able to recover all but 60 MB of the original drive.

fixing the drive structure

Once you have imaged the drive, you can attempt some of the various tools to fix the structure of your NTFS partition, like fsck. Some people have had success with other tools as well, but none of these worked for me. It’s worth a shot, and here is a link to a discussion about some of the options you have.

SuperUser - Fix corrupt NTFS partition without Windows

In my case, it was unable to find the superblock, and couldn’t fix itself. I still recommend it, as the upside is huge, and it’s a simple check once you have created a backup.

recovering data

Once I had a full copy of the original drive, I was free to test out the various open source data recovery tools out there. Originally I used Foremost, but I found it to not be helpful in terms of communicating how far along it was, and ease of use in pausing and restarting.

Ultimately I ended up using Photorec, and followed it’s super simple usage directions. Despite its name, it is more than just a tool for recovering image files, it looks for all sorts of documents, text files, etc. Make sure you already have a new directory created ahead of time, as you won’t have the option to create one inside photorec.

$ sudo photorec /media/hardrive/backup_image

Photorec has a detailed terminal UI that will guide you through selecting the image file (if you ran it without specifying it), selecting the output directory, and start the long process of searching. It will report the progress percentage and the number of each file type found. After running for many hours, I was able to recover over 10k files and copy them to a new hard drive.


At this point, you are free to test any data recovery tools on your backup images, just make sure that you aren’t running them on the damaged disk. The only thing left desired after going through this is related to lost metadata after recovering files. After using photorec to find hundreds of gigabytes of data, many files were missing filenames and of course, any directory information was gone as well.

Given that some file types have more complicated metadata embedded inside, a tool that parsed metadata when filenames were lost would be a great addition to photorec. I could imagine a simple rules engine that would look for filenames, authors, timestamps, locations and add them in priority order for some context for the drive owner.

All in all, losing only 60 MB out of a damaged 1 TB hard drive is more than I can ask for, so I can’t complain. Lastly, I will always plug using some sort of backup tool like Restic or Backblaze. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and backing up this drive regularly would’ve saved hours of work and headache.