The 605-foot coal freighter Marine Electric filled with water slowly before she capsized, but efforts at an orderly evacuation of crewmen into lifeboats failed, according to a union agent who talked today with one of the ship's three survivors.

"She was taking water forward, but slowly," said James Rice of the National Maritime Union. "A general alarm was sounded and all hands stood by, but then the head went down and she capsized."

At that point, about 30 miles off Chincoteague, Va., in the cold and dark before dawn, efforts to load crewmen into lifeboats and rafts evidently came apart.

Today only three men from the crew of 36 were alive, all three resting comfortably at Peninsula General Hospital where their attending physicians refused to permit interviews with them.

Hospital spokeswoman Diane Cox said Eugene S. Kelly, 31, of Norwell, Mass., one of the survivors, told her this morning that the loaded coal ship, which left Norfolk Friday night bound for New England, was taking water at a faster rate than her bilge pumps could handle. "Then it capsized," he told her.

Dr. Steven Grahek was the emergency room physician on duty when the three survivors arrived at Peninsula. He said one survivor told him he was in the 37-degree water for 2 1/2 hours before he was picked out by a rescue helicopter.

"He was suffering from only mild hypothermia, which was amazing," said Grahek. The other two survivors were in the water a much shorter time -- one for a half hour and the only for a few moments -- before they climbed aboard rafts to await rescue, Grahek said.

The doctor suggested that water temperatures may have been less chilling than the bitter cold air that followed Friday's winter storm.

Oddly, he said, none of the survivors mentioned the storm as a factor in the sinking. "One guy said it the water was rough," Grahek said, but beyond that none made any mention. Much less snow fell in the lower Eastern Shore and on the waters here than in Washington.

Grahek said the survivors told him the attempt to abandon ship "wasn't routine. They tried to get in and get away but the ship tilted," he said.

Cox said attending physicians were keeping the survivors isolated in part because, "They don't realize they are the only ones. The doctors want to give them time to adjust before they're confronted with the magnitude of the disaster."

Said Grahek: "They know they're lucky to be alive. They're sort of numb from it. If you've ever been at sea in a storm you'd know the feeling. They're humbled. You could see it in these guys. They were humbled by it."