NASSAU, Bahamas (AP) — Billionaire coal entrepreneur Chris Cline, who worked his way out of West Virginia’s underground mines to amass a fortune and become a major Republican donor, was killed in a helicopter crash along with six other Americans, his lawyer’s office confirmed on Friday.
Cline and his 22-year-old daughter Kameron were on board the aircraft when it went down Thursday, said Joe Carey, a spokesman for attorney Brian Glasser, who planned to issue a family statement later Friday.
Leaders of industry, government and academics in West Virginia eulogized Cline as a coal industry visionary and a generous giver.
“He was a very farsighted entrepreneur,” said Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association. “Chris was just one of those folks who had the Midas touch.”
Forbes estimated his fortune at $1.8 billion this year. Cline donated heavily to President Donald Trump and other Republicans. Federal records show he gave the president’s inaugural committee $1 million in 2017 and spread thousands more to conservative groups as well as committees representing prominent Republicans such as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.
Bahamas Police Supt. Shanta Knowles told The Associated Press that they began searching when police received a report from Florida that Cline’s helicopter failed to arrive in Fort Lauderdale as expected on Thursday.
The bodies of the four women and three men were recovered and taken to the capital in Nassau to be officially identified, Knowles said. The helicopter was still in the water, and based on preliminary information, she did not believe there had been a distress call before it went down.
A Royal Bahamas Police Force statement said authorities and local residents found the crash site two miles off Big Grand Cay, group of private islands Cline owned.
Knowles said that preliminary information suggests there was no distress call before it went down. The helicopter was still in the water Friday, and She said a specialized ship was coming from Florida with equipment to pull the helicopter from the water.
Aviation safety investigators in the Bahamas are working to determine the cause, said Jaime Nixon, an aviation safety analyst for the Air Accident Investigation Department of the Bahamas. The Bahamas Civil Aviation Authority told the Federal Aviation Administration that the Augusta AW139 helicopter was located in the water at about 7 p.m. on Thursday.
Cline started in the coal industry at 22 years old, working in an underground mine in southern West Virginia, as his father and grandfather did, according to a biography on one of his companies’ websites.
He quickly moved into management roles and soon formed his own energy development company, the Cline Group, which grew into one of the country’s top coal producers.
West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice tweeted that he “lost a very close friend” in Cline, “a WV superstar.”
“Chris Cline built an empire and on every occasion was always there to give. What a wonderful, loving, and giving man,” Justice tweeted.
Cline also donated $5 million to support West Virginia’s Marshall University Sports Medicine Institute and another $3.5 million for the school’s athletics foundation.
“Our hearts are heavy,” said Marshall University President Jerome A. Gilbert. “Chris’s generosity to our research and athletics programs has made a mark on Marshall University and our students for many years to come.”