LA CORUNA, SPAIN, DEC. 5 -- At least 22 sailors died today after fire broke out on their freighter in rough seas off the coast of Spain and forced the crew to abandon ship, Spanish National Radio reported.

The radio said Coast Guard and Navy helicopters and nearby freighters recovered 22 bodies and rescued eight crewmen from life rafts. It said only one member of the 31-man crew of the Panamanian-registered freighter Cason remained unaccounted for.

Most of the fatalities appeared to have been the result of drowning or exposure in the frigid waters.

The radio said 29 of the crewmen were Chinese, and two were reportedly from Hong Kong.

A spokesman for Lloyd's Shipping Intelligence Unit in London said the 9,191-ton Cason was owned by a Hong Kong-based firm and was headed from Rotterdam to China.

According to a spokeswoman at La Coruna's Juan Canalejo Hospital, at least 12 of the 22 dead sailors had not suffered burns and appeared to have died from exposure.

Officials said they did not know how the fire broke out, and interviewing the survivors was difficult because of the language problem.

The Coast Guard said at least two tugs from the nearby port of Vigo were trying to extinguish the fire aboard the Cason, which was reported drifting toward Cape Finisterre, in northwestern Spain. High seas also hampered efforts to secure towlines to the burning ship, officials said.