When Wendell tries to boot his PC, an error message announces a disk read error. It's as if his hard drive--with three year's worth of work on it--doesn't exist.
You could very well have a dead hard drive--or at least a very damaged one. Replacing the drive itself is relatively easy, although the current hard drive shortage will raise the cost.
Since I suspect you don't have a backup, recovering the data will be the hard part. Backing up is like flossing--everyone knows they should do it but few actually bother. And eventually you pay for that oversight.
But let's see what we can do.
Try booting from a PartedMagic CD or flash drive and see if you can access your files through that. PartedMagic is a live Linux variation that comes with a hard drive diagnostic program--something that you may find useful. You download PartedMagic in the form of an .iso file. If you double-click an .iso file, it will likely launch a program that will walk you through the process of turning the contents of that file into a CD (simply copying the file to a CD won't work). If such a program doesn't come up, download and install the ISO Recorder for Windows XP and Server 2003 or ISO Recorder for Vista and Windows 7. Then double-click the .iso file again.
See The Bootable Maintenance Flash Drive for instructions on putting PartedMagic on a flash drive.
If you can access the files while running PartedMagic, you can easily drag them to an external hard drive plugged into one of your USB ports.
And if you can't, try PartedMagic's drive diagnostic program, Disk Health.
If that doesn't help, you'll have to go on to the next step: Removing the hard drive from the computer and attaching it to another computer as a secondary drive (not the one you boot from). You can do this by either installing it as a second drive in a desktop PC, or by using a SATA-USB adapter (they cost about $20) to turn it into a temporary USB external drive. You'll then be able to plug it into one of the other computer's USB ports.
Once it's attached to the other computer, see if you can access the files. If you can, copy them to another drive.
Your last option is to send the drive to a data retrieval company. The two best-known are Kroll Ontrack and DriveSavers Data Recovery. Does that make them the best choices? Not necessarily. I know of no practical way to test these services, so I can't say that they're any better than their lesser-known and less-expensive competitors.
These services are very expensive. A successful retrieval (and there's no guarantee of success) will cost you hundreds or even thousands of dollars. But frankly, that's the cost of not backing up.
Contributing Editor Lincoln Spector writes about technology and cinema. Email your tech questions to him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or post them to a community of helpful folks on the PCW Answer Line forum. Follow Lincoln on Twitter, or subscribe to the Answer Line newsletter, e-mailed weekly.