(Adds witness details)
By Dave Warner
POINT PLEASANT BEACH, N.J., March 21 (Reuters) - A search was under way on Friday for as many as 10 people still unaccounted for after an early morning fire raced through a Jersey Shore motel popular with fisherman, killing three people and critically injuring three others.
Beach breezes whipped up the flames that engulfed the two-story Mariner's Cove Motor Inn in Point Pleasant Beach, New Jersey, fire and law enforcement officials told a news conference.
Seven people were injured, three of them critically, and as many as 10 were still missing after three bodies were found in the scorched ruins of the motel, said Ocean County Prosecutor Joseph Coronato.
About half of the 40 occupants were using the motel as temporary housing after being displaced when their homes were damaged during Hurricane Sandy, said James Giannuzzi, whose beachfront condominium was badly flooded during that storm and who had been living on the motel's first floor for about six weeks.
Hurricane Sandy ravaged the U.S. eastern seaboard in October 2012, killing 286 people in a total of seven countries hit by the cyclone and causing an estimated $68 billion in damage, according to the National Weather Service.
The area around the motel was badly flooded during Sandy, said local resident Cynthia Clausen.
Giannuzzi, 52, said he awoke early on Friday to the sound of "some hero knocking on all the doors." He said he grabbed his jeans, boots and coats and threw open his motel room door.
"It was a raging fire," said Giannuzzi, who was treated at a nearby hospital for smoke inhalation and released. He said the Red Cross was sheltering displaced motel residents at a nearby location.
The three people who died in the fire were male and staying in adjacent rooms on the second floor, according to Ocean County Assistant Fire Marshal Edward Hazelton. Officials expressed hope that at least that some of the unaccounted-for guests would turn up safe.
"There's a possibility that some of those who are missing are out on the ocean, working," Hazelton said.
Officials denied earlier reports that many of the motel's occupants were jumping off the second-floor roof.
The fire was reported shortly after 5:30 a.m. (0930 GMT) and extinguished within a few hours, said Al Della Fave, spokesman for the Ocean County Prosecutor's Office. The cause was unknown and under investigation.
"They are in the rescue-and-recovery phase, going room to room to be sure everyone is out of the structure," Della Fave told Reuters.
Mariner's Cove Motor Inn, which has a large swimming pool, is located near Cooks Creek, a narrow waterway that connects the Manasquan River to Lake Louise. The seaside town of Point Pleasant Beach is a popular destination for millions of sun-worshippers who flock to the Jersey Shore every summer.
The severity of the blaze prompted local officials to call in New Jersey Task Force One, a state urban search-and-rescue squad, as well as the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, which has advanced capabilities for conducting fire investigations. (Additional reporting by Barbara Goldberg and Chris Francescani; Editing by Stephen Powell, Gunna Dickson and Tom Brown)