updated 3/24/2009 7:53:00 PM ET 2009-03-24T23:53:00

A fishing boat sank in rough seas off New Jersey on Tuesday morning, killing two people and leaving four missing in the icy ocean as relatives gathered at the water's edge to pray for their safe return.

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 crew member was conscious and alert when he was plucked with two others from the water by a helicopter. Two helicopters, an airplane and two boats swept a 225-square-mile area of the Atlantic Ocean for the remaining people.

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.

Survivor released
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, Petty Officer Mark Jones said.

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.

Waves were 4 to 7 feet high when the boat sank, Kendrick said. Searching for the missing boaters were two helicopters and an airplane from Coast Guard stations in Elizabeth City, N.C., and Atlantic City, as well two boats from Cape May.

Commercial fishermen all know they could be lost at sea someday, Janifer said.

"It is a known possibility," she said. "They are well aware of the danger you could get in out there."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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