I was just copying some files from a camera to the computer using File Explorer, when all of a sudden, I received a "Catastrophic failure" message.

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I was shaken, not just by the content of the message itself, but by its brevity. I've come to expect detailed error messages in Windows with lots of technical jargon and composed carefully chosen words, and this is unlike anything I've ever seen before. It almost seems like something a virus would cause.

I clicked OK, and continued copying the pictures over. I was able to copy them all over, so I'm not sure what this was about. I looked online but couldn't find anything certain. Is this just Windows misbehaving? Does anyone know what would prompt this?

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    When you say, “copying some files from a camera to the computer” do you mean the camera was connected (presumably) via some kind of USB cable? Jul 2, 2018 at 0:39
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    @JakeGould Yes. Jul 2, 2018 at 0:42
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    Given that you were able to continue copying (and I assume you verified that everything was copied and copied successfully), it can't mean what the words would imply. Sounds like a nothingburger.
    – fixer1234
    Jul 2, 2018 at 0:43
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    @fixer1234 True, but that's not what I would expect from this message. I've never seen "catastrophic" in any Windows error dialog before, and I half expected the hard disk to crash or something when it popped up. Is this really a genuine Windows error? Jul 2, 2018 at 0:44
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    The error may have been logged in Event Viewer and may have more details.
    – Moab
    Jul 2, 2018 at 13:21

1 Answer 1


Catastrophic Failure, as Wikipedia explains it:

A catastrophic failure is a sudden and total failure from which recovery is impossible. Catastrophic failures often lead to cascading systems failure.

Where the term "Cascading systems failure" means:

A cascading failure is a process in a system of interconnected parts in which the failure of one or few parts can trigger the failure of other parts and so on.

Well, as of now there is no "official" Documentation explaining Catastrophic failures related to Media devices or even Catastrophic failures in general. This is probably because, Catastrophic failures can't be explained. The reason why I say this is, as said by the OP himself:

...I've come to expect detailed error messages in Windows with lots of technical jargon and composed carefully chosen words...

This indicates that windows itself might not have enough useful information on what exactly happened.

So in general "Catastrophic Failures" seem to have three properties in common:

  1. Irrecoverable error,
  2. Error followed by more errors
  3. No or little information.

Since Catastrophic Failures in Windows may have wider meanings, I'm only adressing Catastrophic Failures while transferring data from a media device like mobile phones and cameras hereforth.

During a USB transfer from another device, windows requests a file from the device, in return, the device responds with the file (That is, during an unexeptional transfer). To read more: https://qr.ae/pG0xzY (C'mon that is a nice article even if it is from Quora...)

However, if under certain conditions, the device is unable to read the file from its storage, then it would return windows an Error. Windows wouldn't have any idea what happened, and instead the transfer process would itself end spewing an error: Catastrophic Failure

The reason how the above paragraph is not just a theory is as follows, try this: Start a transfer over a USB. Now delete that file from your device. Windows will return you a Catastrophic failure. Also, Considering that the three OPs above who said they encountered Catastrophic failure might be facing a momentary read error on their devices, the above theory explains all the scenarios.

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