RESOLVED.... though not how I expected.
When I popped the laptop harddrive into my Win7 machine to clone it, Win7 kept wanting to fix it. I couldn't read anything on the laptop drive, so finally let Win7 do it's thing. Found bad sector & made repairs, enough that I could rescue my Daughter-in-laws pics, etc. Then was able to pop it back in the mini & restore the os partition from the recovery partition.