So this friend of mine - a student, as it happens - rings up a few days ago at about 5 pm to say that the above was just exactly what had happened ... up until it was time for Windows to re-launch. The all she was getting was a prompt to reboot again.
Well, it could have been a root-kit virus, or an OS failure, or a hard drive failure - from 500 miles away I couldn't tell, but what we did know was that she needed to get her data off the hard drive and also to get a system up so she could finish a paper.
Enter the "Live Distro"!! You'll have seen magazines on sale with CDs packaged in them. There are at least four (Linux Format, Linux Pro Magazine, Ubuntu User, and Linux User and Developer) that normally carry a CD or DVD in their packaging containing a bootable version of the operating system. The idea is to let people try out the system to see if they like it without installing a whole new OS just to find they hate it!
However, because pretty much all Linux versions now have drivers to read Microsoft's NTFS file system, they make excellent rescue systems!
So she went and got a magazine, opened the case and popped the DVD in to the drive in her laptop and rebooted the machine. When it started it asked her if she wanted to boot from removable disc, and she said Yes. Three or four simple questions (keyboard, time, date, timezone, etc). After that she was in to a functioning modern operating system.
After getting all valuable information off, she found that Libre Office let her open her Windows 2010 Word and PowerPoint documents and finish everything up. Her VB.Net coursework is (luckily) complete, otherwise it would have been an install of Mono and Eclipse!
And Windows? Dell are sending her a recovery disk set and, if that doesn't work, it'll be returned for hardware recovery. Of course, there's always the alternative of popping in a new hard drive and running Linux natively, with maybe a VM with Windows ....
So, to all those of you who panic when Windows fails: help is at hand - just as far away as your nearest Barnes & Noble store! The magazines (they're all British, by the way) cost about $16, so as a way of getting at your data despite a death of Windows it is probably the cheapest method going!