A tanker ship carrying industrial ethanol fuel has exploded and sunk in the Atlantic Ocean off the U.S. east coast, killing at least three of the 27 crew members.

The U.S. Coast Guard rescued six critically-injured survivors from a lifeboat late Saturday and brought them to shore for treatment.

Ships and aircraft continue searching for 18 missing crew members in cold ocean waters about 80 kilometers offshore from the state of Virginia.

The ship's owner, the Norwegian shipper Odfjell, says the tanker had a crew of three Greeks and 24 Filipinos. The Bloomberg news service quotes a Coast Guard official as saying all six survivors are Filipino.

The Singapore-registered tanker, the Bow Mariner, sent a radio message late Saturday reporting an explosion on board and appealing for help. It was traveling from New York to Houston, Texas.

The Associated Press quotes an emergency services official as saying the blast occurred after a fire started on the ship's deck.

Odfjell says the tanker was carrying about 11,000 metric tons of ethanol. Both the company and Coast Guard spokesman Lieutenant Buddy Dye say ethanol dissolves in water and that the spill should have little effect on the environment.

Industrial ethanol, an alcohol-based fuel, is used as a gasoline additive as well as a solvent in the making of varnishes and perfumes.