ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. – As fears mounted that the death toll would rise to six, rescuers continued to search the ocean darkness Tuesday night for the last four crew members of a fishing boat that sank off the New Jersey coast in an accident expected to rank among the worst commercial fishing disasters in the nation's history.
The Lady Mary, a 71-foot scallop boat based at Cape May in southern New Jersey and owned by a North Carolina man, sank at about 5 a.m. with seven people aboard about 75 miles off the coast.
Only one survivor had been found as of Tuesday night; two of the three crew members plucked from the icy water by a Coast Guard helicopter died.
Two helicopters, an airplane and two boats were using powerful search lights to sweep a 225-square-mile area of the Atlantic Ocean for the remaining people.
Six deaths would mark the accident as one of the worst in New Jersey history, where more than 100 commercial fishermen have died at sea since reliable records started being kept in 1931. That would equal the death toll on the Andrea Gail, the Massachusetts fishing boat whose 1991 sinking was the subject of the movie "The Perfect Storm."
Although it would trail fishing disasters in Alaska in which as many as 15 crew members perished, it would still rank among the worst single-ship accidents in the U.S.
One of the worst losses occurred in 2001 when the Arctic Rose went down in the Bering Sea, killing 15 people. That's also where the Aleutian Enterprise sank in 1990, claiming nine lives.
In Tuesday's accident in New Jersey, all seven crew members were wearing cold-water survival suits, the Coast Guard said, but a national search and rescue expert said odds are slim they are still alive in the 40-degree water.
"If the water is 40 degrees, this is an extreme emergency situation," said Steven L. Labov, chief of the U.S. Search and Rescue Task Force. "Expected survival time will be under six hours. The suits may extend that a bit. However, this is a grave situation for an incident that occurred early today. We always hope and persevere during a search; however, in this situation, as each minute passes, their ability to survive substantially drops."
At the dock where the Lady Mary was based, about two dozen relatives and friends of the fishermen held hands and prayed.
"God, we pray for a miracle," said Marcia Janifer, whose sister is engaged to Roy Smith Jr., one of the men she said was missing Tuesday afternoon. She described Smith Jr. as "shy but funny."
Smith's father, Roy Smith Sr. of Bayboro, N.C., owned the boat, said Clara Burkhardt, office manager of the Cold Springs Fish and Supplies, which bought seafood from the elder Smith.
An hour after receiving a transmission at 7:30 a.m. from an emergency radio beacon, a Coast Guard helicopter found three crew members in the water near an empty life raft bobbing in the ocean. They were taken to a hospital, where one was pronounced dead and a second died shortly afterward.
The third rescued crew member, Jose Arias, was able to tell authorities that all seven members of the crew donned lifesaving suits "and abandoned ship" for a reason he didn't specify, said Petty Officer Andrew Kendrick.
In a brief interview with reporters at the Coast Guard station, Arias said he is afraid none of his co-workers survived.
"Seven people ... only me," he said.
Arias, who said he spent at least two hours in the water, was treated at a local hospital and released.