ATHENS - Rescuers battled in the dark Sunday to save more than 300 trapped passengers from a burning Italian ferry as coastguards reported the first death in the high-seas drama.

As darkness fell, teams from Greece, Italy and Albania who had coped with gale-force winds and billowing smoke earlier in the day, pressed on with efforts to retrieve more passengers. The Italian coastguard confirmed the first death in the disaster, saying it had plucked a man's body from the water around the ferry.

The unnamed victim, a Greek national, was being transferred to the Italian port of Brindisi on a patrol boat. Greek officials said a Greek woman who had been in the same part of the stricken ‘Norman Atlantic’ as the deceased man had been rescued. The blaze on the ferry was said to have started on the car deck when the vessel was some 44 nautical miles northwest of the Greek island of Corfu.

In an update at 1630 GMT, the Italian navy said 317 of the 478 passengers and crew were still aboard the ferry. Desperate passengers pleaded by mobile phone live on TV to be saved from the vessel which was travelling from the Greek port of Patras to Ancona in Italy. ‘I cannot breathe, we are all going to burn like rats - God save us,’ cried one of the ship's cooks in a call to his wife, she told journalists.

As a flotilla of rescue vessels arrived from Greece, Italy and Albania, Greek army Super Puma helicopters winched passengers two by two from the bridge to the Italian ship, Europa, which is coordinating the rescue. A Greek journalist aboard the ship said rescuers were also trying to attach rope ladders to the ferry so passengers could climb down onto tug boats. A Greek army helicopter made repeated attempts to save two passengers who fell from an escape chute and were at the mercy of six-metre waves. Their fate was unknown. Greek Marine Minister Miltiadis Varvitsiotis said an attempt would be made to tow the vessel.

Italian navy spokesman Riccardo Rizzotto said the weather is ‘so bad we need an extraordinary level of support, which is effectively what is being put in place.’ He also said a 58-year-old man had been airlifted to Italy suffering from hypothermia. Freezing passengers huddled on the top deck and bridge of the ship told of their terror in calls to Greek television stations. ‘We are on the top deck, we are soaked, we are cold and we are coughing from the smoke. There are women, children and old people,’ passenger Giorgos Styliaras told Mega TV.

Another told the station that ‘our shoes were melting’ from the heat of the fire when they were mustered in the ship's reception area. Haulage company boss Giannis Mylonas, who was in contact with three of his drivers on the vessel, said there were between 20 and 25 tanker trucks filled with olive oil on board. The captain of the ferry was named as 62-year-old Italian Argilio Giacomazzi. ‘I can't wait to give him a hug,’ his daughter Guilia told ANSA news agency.

Vessels close to the ANEK Lines ferry rushed to give assistance after picking up its distress signal at 0200 GMT, the Greek coast guard said. The Greek maritime ministry said 268 of the passengers were Greek, with the crew made up of 22 Italians and 34 Greeks. But the rest of the passengers were made up of 54 Turks, 44 Italians, 22 Albanians, 18 Germans, 10 Swiss, nine French, and Russian, Austrian, British and Dutch nationals. Among those rescued and evacuated to hospitals near Lecce on Italy's southwestern heel were a two-year-old Swiss boy, his four-year-old sister and their seven months pregnant mother, according to Italian media.

Two children aged 11 and 12 were reported to have been evacuated while their respective parents were still on the boat. The ‘Norman Atlantic’ left the Greek port of Patras at 1530 GMT on Saturday and made a stop at Igoumenitsa, before heading to the Italian port of Ancona when the fire took hold. The car deck of the Italian-flagged ferry was believed to have been holding 195 vehicles when the fire broke out. According to rescued passengers, the intense heat rapidly affected the rest of the ship. However, passengers stranded on the ship later seemed to be more worried by the storm, telling Greek TV the flames were subsiding. The ship's Greek operators ANEK Lines did not say how the fire started.