At least one person has died when a Greek ferry off the island of Corfu caught fire. Reports said over 200 passengers have been rescued amid the gale-force winds, frigid temperatures and billowing smoke. But authorities continue to race against time to rescue some 200 still trapped in the burning ferry.

Greek coast guard officials said on Sunday the Norman Atlantic was 44 nautical miles northwest of the island of Corfu when it sent a distress signal that a fire had broken out in the lower deck. It was carrying 222 vehicles, 411 passengers and 55 crew. It was bound for the Italian port of Ancona in Italy.

At least seven Greek vessels immediately heeded the call for help, rushing to the scene to give assistance, taking passengers on board, the coastguard said, while Italian and Greek aircraft circled overhead. Two Greek firefighting ships were on their way.

Most of the rescued were airlifted by helicopter to the other merchant vessels sailing nearby. A number were flown directly to hospitals in southern Italy because of hypothermia. "We are outside, we are very cold, the ship is full of smoke," the AP quoted passenger Giorgos Stiliaras as telling Greek Mega TV. "There are women, children and old people."

The ship would now be towed to Italy after the fire on board now appeared to be partly under control as of early Monday morning, Greek Shipping Minister Miltiadis Varvitsiotis said. The airlifts will continue even as it is being towed. "It will be a very difficult night and I hope that everything will go well and we will rescue all passengers and all crew members," Varvitsiotis told reporters.

Majority of the 478 passengers and crew on the Norman Atlantic were Greek, at 268. There were also passengers from Germany, Italy, Austria, Turkey, France and the Netherlands. Many appeared to be truck drivers, a foreign ministry official said.

Reuters said the Norman Atlantic is a 26,900-tonne, roll-on roll-off ferry chartered by Greek ferry company ANEK. Citing marine traffic data, the ferry was built in 2009. It had previously operated in Italy.