This has been a problem which has come up a few times recently for me.
Ext3 has known bugs. Sometimes on cold starts and at other random times, the boot img gets loaded into RAM and then the ext3 journal can't find the superblock and the system barfs with lots of journalling errors.
Usually, I just reboot and the system marks the fs as having dirty bits and recovers the journal. No problem. This time, it crashed properly. Couldn't find the init image (even though I told the kernel where it was), couldn't find the journal block.
No matter how many times I rebooted, this system was not going to get back up. Boot disk didn't help. So I turned to Tom's root/boot disk. Boted that up to do an fsck.ext3 on the system.
But Tomsrbt doesn't have fsck utilities!!!!! Can anyone believe that? It's like a ship without lifeboats! How on earth can you have any distro (however small) without these really *really* important utilities?
Luckily I had a spare Slackware 8.1 CD which I used to check the filesystem.
I've learnt 3 things:
1. Use ext2 not ext3. Not until the bugs are fixed.
2. Do not rely on Tomsrbt distro to get you out of trouble.
3. Think about installing Slackware.