LA CORUNA, Spain -- A fire raged through a Panamanian-registered freighter Saturday as it steamed off the northwest coast of Spain, forcing the crew into the icy Atlantic where at least 22 died, officials said.
Rescuers plucked eight surviors from the stormy seas and rescue helicopters and launches searched for a ninth crewman from the 15,000-ton cargo vessel Cason. Authorities said they did not know the cause of the fire, which was still burning at sundown Saturday.
When darkness fell, navy and Red Cross helicopters and ships called off their search and officials feared the missing crew member was also dead.
'It is very cold and foggy out there and we do not have much hope that the missing person is still alive,' said a government spokeswoman in La Coruna, 316 miles northwest of Madrid.
A British ship and an Italian vessel raced to the scene through strong winds and high seas to rescue five crewmen and Spanish helicopters picked up three others.
'Right now we know that there are 22 dead, eight survivors and one still missing,' a government spokeswoman said.
Most of the crew were citizens of China or Hong Kong, she said. At least one was a woman, who apparently died from exposure after jumping from the ship as it burned 20 miles off Cape Finisterre, about 75 miles north of Spain's border with Portugal.
'It seems that all of the victims died from the icy water,' said a nurse at a hospital in La Coruna.
The 15,000-ton Cason was steaming from Rotterdam, the Netherlands, to Hong Kong with a crew of 31 when the fire broke out, shipping sources in La Coruna said.
A Spanish navy spokesman said the fire began about 5 a.m. and the captain sent a distress call an hour later.
'The fire spread very rapidly and the crew abandoned ship, but some were caught in the flames,' he said.
Three crewmen were taken to a La Coruna hospital.
'Only one of them had suffered slight burns. He was treated and released along with the other two,' a nurse at the hospital said.
Authorities said it was the worst sea disaster off Spain's northwest coast since a Norwegian tanker ran aground in 1970 off the port of Vigo, drowning 23 crewmen.