Richard Branson 'Glad to Be Alive' After Fire Destroys Necker Island Getaway

Kate Winslet and all 20 guests at Necker Island getaway are safe, Branson says.

ByABC News
August 23, 2011, 9:07 AM

Aug. 23, 2011— -- It was a scene straight out of a Hollywood disaster movie, including real-life actress Kate Winslet, when Virgin mogul Richard Branson's private island residence erupted in flames in the middle of the night, leaving guests 15 minutes to escape before the home was reduced to rubble.

"It was something of a nightmare, reminded me of the film, 'Mandalay,'" Branson said today on "Good Morning America." "We're all glad to be well, glad to be alive, glad to have gotten through it."

Branson was staying with wife Joan and son Sam in one of the five smaller Balinese-style villas on his famous $70 million vacation property on Necker Island in the British Virgin Islands when a fire broke out around 4:00 a.m. Monday in the compound's "Great House."

Branson's 20 guests, including actress Kate Winslet, were staying at the fourteen-bedroom complex.

"I was woken up by my son banging on my window," Branson recalled. "We stayed about 100 yards away from the 'Great House,' looked across ... and there were 200-foot flames billowing out of it."

Branson, 61, said he wasted no time, running "stark naked" from the villa up the hill toward the fire-ravaged house, nearly getting stuck in a catcus.

"We just ran stark naked towards the house. I went straight into a cacti bush," he said. "My son ran on and fortunately people had woken up inside and our nephews did ... a good evacuation."

Each of the 20 houseguests staying at the complex were able to leave the burning house in safety, Branson said.

Kate Winslet Plays Hero in House Fire

Branson credited Winslet with saving his 90-year old mother, Eve, from the fire. The Oscar-winning actress, who was a guest of Branson's at the luxury compound along with her daughter Mia, 10, and son Joe, 7, played the role of hero and carried Branson's mother to safety from the burning building.

"Of course, she was obviously desperate to get her children out and my mother was there so she whisked my mother up in her arms and took her down the steps and anyway, and all is well," Branson said on "GMA."

The exact cause of the fire is under investigation, but it is believed to have been caused by a lightning storm caused by Hurricane Irene, with winds of about 80 mph.

The fire burned up Branson's paradise playground and 30-years of mementos and memories along with it. Still, the billionaire said he intends to stay on the island and rebuild the house as soon as possible to accommodate his daughter's wedding. Holly, 29, had planned to tie the knot at the getaway this winter.

"We're all determined that the wedding continues [on Necker Island] this December. We'll try to get as much rebuilt before the wedding as possible. ... If not, we'll put up some tents, but we definitely want the wedding to go ahead," he said.

"It's one of those stories that's ended up happily," he added. "We will rebuild the house and make it even better than it was before and we'll have many more wonderful memories of the future."

Necker Island Retreat Was Favorite for Celebrities, Royals

Branson has owned the idyllic property, located in the British Virgin Islands, since 1978. The previously uninhabited island has since been developed to include a number of private villas, in addition to a main house, which can accommodate up to 28 guests at a time.

The ultra-exclusive Caribbean retreat is a long-standing favorite of Hollywood starlets, rock icons and heiresses of every stripe.

Necker Island is also a favorite of the royals, said Ericka Souter, a staff writer at US Weekly. "It's a playground for royalty, and there are reports that Princess Diana and Sarah 'Fergie' Ferguson both enjoyed time on the island."

Royal expert Katie Nicholl said, "Diana would take William and Harry to Necker very regularly, largely because she knew they couldn't be spied on. That paparazzi couldn't get anywhere near."

Years later, Kate Middleton came to Necker during a brief split with now-husband Prince William.

The island oasis is a popular wedding destination. Larry Page, Google's co-founder, was married there in 2007 -- the same year as comedian Jimmy Fallon -- and newlyweds Nick Lachey and Vanessa Minnilow recently celebrated their nuptials there as well.

The celebrity haven -- which was the locale of the 2010 Victoria's Secret catalogue shoot -- has also hosted Victoria and David Beckham (who reportedly celebrated their 10th wedding anniversary on its private beaches), media magnate Oprah Winfrey, and leading men Mel Gibson and Harrison Ford, to name just a few.