A tanker carrying 13.3 million liters of industrial ethanol exploded and sank about 80km off the Virginia coast, the Coast Guard said. At least three of the 27 crew members died and most of the others were missing.
Two people died among the eight transported by helicopter to Sentara Norfolk General Hospital, spokeswoman Vicky Gray said. The other six men were being evaluated, she said.
Toni Keiser, a spokeswoman for Atlantic General Hospital in Berlin, Maryland, said a dead man from the tanker was brought to the hospital and that two rescue divers were treated and released there for minor injuries.
The Bow Mariner, a 171m tanker flying a Singapore flag, made an emergency call just after 6pm, saying there had been an explosion on board, said Petty Officer Stacey Pardini of the Coast Guard Atlantic area in Portsmouth, Virginia.
The explosion occurred about 80km east of Chincoteague, Virginia, after a fire started on the deck of the ship, said Lieutenant Chris Shaffer of Ocean City (Maryland) Emergency Services.
"When the rescue divers got on the scene the fuel tanker was on fire, sinking and there was people in the water," Shaffer said. He added that the six survivors rescued were in critical condition.
Three helicopters, three Coast Guard boats and a C-130 plane were searching for survivors.
Coast Guard Senior Chief John Moss said late Saturday night that nine crew members were accounted for, including seven survivors. One survivor was picked up by a commercial fishing boat, he said.
"We have no indication that this was anything other than an accident at this point," Moss said, adding that he didn't know what caused the explosion.
Moss said the Coast Guard did not know how much of the ethanol was released into the water.
Betty Turner, a nursing supervisor at Peninsula Regional Medical Center in Salisbury, Maryland, said her hospital had been notified to expect a victim who may have suffered burns.
The ship is a chemical tanker, built in 1982 and owned by a Greek company, Ceres Hellenic Shipping Enterprises Ltd. A company spokesman confirmed the ship had a crew of 27 and said "there is no information yet on their fate."