The Coast Guard suspended its search Sunday night of the waters 50 miles off Virginia's Eastern Shore and planned to send a plane Monday morning to decide whether to resume the search, Chief Warrant Officer Gene Maestas said.
"Realistically, the longer the search goes on, the less likely it is that we will find anyone who is still alive," Rear Adm. Sally Brice-O'Hara, a Coast Guard commander.
With the water temperature at 44 degrees, a person could survive several hours depending on health and survival gear, Brice-O'Hara said. Six crewmen were rescued within hours of Saturday's explosion.
The ship had a crew of 24 Filipinos and three Greeks. Three survivors, all from the Philippines, were in good condition at the hospital and could be released Monday morning, said a hospital spokeswoman. Three others were released Sunday morning.
"They look like they've been through an ordeal and they're very introspective about what happened," hospital spokeswoman Vicky Gray said of the rescued crewmen, who did not speak English. "They're very quiet, subdued, like you would expect."
Guardsmen don't yet know how much of the fuel aboard the ship spilled; but they say it was carrying 3.5 million gallons of ethanol, 48,000 gallons of stored diesel fuel and 193,000 gallons of fuel oil.
The ship, the Bow Mariner, was traveling from New York to Houston when it made an emergency call just after 6 p.m. Saturday that there had been an explosion, Coast Guard officials said.
Lt. Chris Shaffer of Ocean City (Maryland) Emergency Services said the explosion came after a fire started on the ship's deck. The 570-foot tanker then sank about 200 feet to the ocean's bottom.
Two crewmen died at hospitals in Maryland and the third died aboard a private fishing vessel that went to the scene, Coast Guard and hospital officials said.
The Singapore-flagged ship is a chemical tanker built in 1982 and is managed by a Greek company, Ceres Hellenic Shipping Enterprises Ltd.
It was unclear how much ethanol spilled into the ocean, but Coast Guard officials said the substance would largely dissipate at sea with minor environmental impact. Fuel from the tanker that spilled when the ship sank also was dissipating, a Coast Guard spokesman said.
By Sonja Barisic
By Sonja Barisic