By Liam Stack and Mariel Padilla July 5, 2019
Chris Cline at the dedication of the indoor practice facility at Marshall University named after him in Huntington, W.Va., in 2014.Sholten Singer/The Herald-Dispatch, via Associated Press
Chris Cline, a billionaire entrepreneur, philanthropist and political donor once called the “King of Coal,” died Thursday in a helicopter crash in the Bahamas that officials said killed seven people.
Local authorities did not immediately identify the victims. But Brian Glasser, a lawyer for Mr. Cline, confirmed that Mr. Cline, who would have turned 61 on Friday, was among the dead. A representative for Mr. Glasser’s firm said that Mr. Cline’s daughter Kameron Cline, 22, had also died.
Jillian Clark and Brittney Searson, 21, recent Louisiana State University graduates, were killed as well, according to NOLA.com. Ms. Clark, Ms. Searson and Ms. Cline were all members of the university’s Phi Mu sorority.
Delaney Wykle, a childhood friend of Kameron’s and a West Virginia University graduate, was also among the victims, The Palm Beach Post reported.
The pilot, David Jude, also died, according to West Virgnia MetroNews. He was an avid golfer who recently played in the West Virginia Open.
The helicopter had taken off from Big Grand Cay around 2 a.m. on Thursday on its way to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., the Royal Bahamas Police Force said in a statement. It was not reported missing to the police until just before 3 p.m., after it did not arrive in Florida.
Investigators from the Bahamian Air Accident Investigation Department were alerted around 5 p.m., said Delvin Major, the chief investigator of air accidents at the Bahamian Air Accident Investigation Department.
Police officers and residents later discovered the aircraft overturned in 16 feet of water off Grand Cay and found seven bodies, four female and three male, the police statement said. The helicopter most likely crashed shortly after takeoff, Mr. Major said.
The victims were taken to the Rand Memorial Hospital on Grand Bahama on Friday morning to be identified, Mr. Major said.
Gov. Jim Justice of West Virginia said on Twitter on Thursday night that the state had lost a “superstar” and that he had lost “a very close friend.”
“Chris Cline built an empire and on every occasion was always there to give,” Mr. Justice wrote. “What a wonderful, loving, and giving man.”
In a statement on Friday, Mr. Cline’s family said that he was “an American original, full of grit, integrity, intelligence and humor” and that Kameron Cline was “a bright light to all who knew her.”
Mr. Cline acquired Big Grand Cay, a 280-acre archipelago, a few years ago, according to a 2017 Forbes profile. The islands used to be owned by Robert Abplanalp, the inventor of the aerosol spray can and a close friend of President Richard M. Nixon.
Mr. Cline began working in the coal industry in West Virginia in 1980 at age 22, according to a biography on his firm’s website. He rapidly rose through the industry ranks, founding an energy development group, the Cline Group, in 1990.
In 2006, he founded Foresight Energy to develop and operate mines in Illinois, according to the firm, though he later sold his controlling interest to another coal company
Mr. Cline’s personal wealth was valued at $1.8 billion, according to Forbes.
In 2012, Mr. Cline was a target of extortion. Vivek Shah, an actor who had minor roles in several films, threatened to kill members of Mr. Cline’s family if he did not pay $13 million. Mr. Shah, who also tried to extort executives like Harvey Weinstein and Ryan Kavanaugh, was sentenced in 2013 to more than seven years in federal prison.
In the 2017 Forbes article, Mr. Cline said he had more than 50 firearms in his gun vault. Referring to an unspecified extortion threat against his children years earlier, he said, “Let ’em come.”
Mr. Cline was a major supporter of President Trump and many other Republicans. He donated $1 million to the president’s 2017 inauguration celebration, according to the Open Secrets site run by the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan group that tracks campaign donations. Organizers of the event raised $107 million, but its fund-raising and spending have drawn scrutiny from state and federal officials.
In 2015, Mr. Cline donated $1 million to a super PAC supporting the presidential campaign of former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida, according to Bloomberg News. He later donated to a super PAC that supported the campaign of Senator Marco Rubio of Florida.
Mr. Cline also donated generously to Marshall University in Huntington, W. Va., which he attended. Jerome A. Gilbert, the university president, referred to him as a “son of Marshall” on Twitter Thursday night.
“Chris’s generosity to our research and athletics programs has made a mark on Marshall University,” he wrote. “I am praying for his family.”
Daniel Victor, Karen Zraick and Elisha Brown contributed reporting.