Billionaire coal baron Chris Cline, whose mines were among the most productive in the United States, died in a Fourth of July helicopter crash that killed seven people traveling from the Bahamas to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., according to multiple reports.
Cline would have turned 61 on Friday.
Bahamanian police said four women and three men on board died in the crash, but they did not name the victims, and civil aviation authorities said their identities were unknown. All seven were Americans, the Associated Press reported.
West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice (R) told the Register-Herald that Cline was among the dead and went on Twitter to call Cline “a WV superstar” and “a very close friend.”
“Chris Cline built an empire and on every occasion was always there to give,” Justice wrote. “What a wonderful, loving, and giving man.”
Justice told The Washington Post that when Cline was in his early 20s, he bought the deep-mining company Pioneer Fuel Corporation from Justice’s father. The governor said he and Cline had been close friends since.
“I commend anyone that’s able to make a nickel at a lemonade stand. Chris made a whole lot of nickels, and he did a whole lot of good, and he endured incredible pressures,” Justice said. “In that, it’s a life we should celebrate.”
Brian Glasser, an attorney for Cline, confirmed to Bloomberg News that his client was killed in the helicopter crash.
“He was a young man,” Glasser said. “He was audacious. He was a great man, and he will be missed.”
Glasser wrote on Twitter that Cline was the most courageous person he had represented.
“A billionaire, he never lost touch with the days he lived in a double wide and used a blow dryer to thaw his winter pipes,” Glasser said.
On Saturday, President Trump called Cline a “wonderful man and great Republican” on Twitter.
The helicopter took off from Big Grand Cay around 2 a.m. on Thursday and was reported missing in the afternoon, when it did not arrive in Fort Lauderdale, the Royal Bahamas Police Force said in a statement. Authorities said police and local residents found the helicopter overturned in 16 feet of water about two miles off the island.
Police did not identify a cause of the crash but said officials, including the Department of Civil Aviation and the Defense Force, were investigating.
Evan Jenkins, a justice on West Virginia’s Supreme Court, said in a statement that Cline, his daughter, friends and pilot had died in the wreck. Cline loved West Virginia, Jenkins wrote.
“His selfless and generous support for programs and projects throughout the state improved the lives of countless West Virginians,” Jenkins said. “His life’s story was one of hard work, love of family and caring support for others.”
Cline’s net worth was estimated at $1.8 billion when he died, according to Forbes.
At the age of 22, Cline followed his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps into the underground coal mines of southern West Virginia, according to the website of his company, Foresight Energy. He started in the coal mines when he was 15, Forbes reported, and the miners would hide him when inspectors visited.
“How much more poor can you get?” Cline told Forbes, speaking about his childhood.
Cline later formed his own energy development company, the Cline Group, which became one of the top 20 coal producers in the United States.
Cline also founded Foresight Energy to operate mines in Illinois. He sold most of his ownership to Murray Energy for $1.4 billion in 2015, Forbes reported, and went on to invest in mines in Nova Scotia and western Canada.
That success led Cline to a life of luxury, radio network West Virginia MetroNews reported. His 150-acre property in Beckley, W.Va., included a go-kart track, a lake, and pastures for Cline’s goats, horses and llamas, MetroNews said. Cline also owned a yacht called Mine Games, the report said, and a mansion in North Palm Beach, Fla.
Forbes called Cline “one of the most archaic and unpopular specimens of capitalist” in 2017 but noted that the billionaire had no problem with being disliked.
“People deserve the cheapest energy they can get,” Cline told Forbes. “Tell the poor in India and China that they don’t deserve to have reliable, affordable electricity.”
In 2010, Bloomberg dubbed Cline the “New King Coal.” By 2015, Bloomberg had made a slight change to the nickname, calling him simply “the King of Coal” in an article about a $1 million contribution Cline had made to a super PAC supporting Republican Jeb Bush’s presidential candidacy.
Cline, a major Republican donor, later gave $1 million to President Trump’s inaugural committee, according to OpenSecrets.org from the Center for Responsive Politics. He also donated $500,000 to the failed presidential campaign of Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), The Post previously reported.
Cline’s family foundation awarded full college scholarships, as well as grants to organizations that promote youth development, education and entrepreneurship.
The foundation also has donated millions of dollars to Marshall University, including a $5 million gift for sports medicine research. At an opening ceremony for the athletic complex on campus named in his honor, Cline said he knew the student athletes would benefit from being able to practice indoors.
“These people have taken your money and your sweat equity, and they took half the money and turned in twice the facility,” he said, according to video of the event. “If you go look around, it’s unbelievable what they were able to do with what they did it with.”
Cline was quiet and seemed somewhat aloof until people got to know him, Mike Hamrick, Marshall’s athletic director, told The Post. He said he and Cline attended Marshall together in the late ’70s until Cline dropped out to enter the coal business with his father.
Now, as an employee of the university, Hamrick said, he solicited Cline for donations to the athletic department. Cline insisted that academics be incorporated into the athletic complex he would fund, Hamrick said, leading to the inclusion of a 15,000-square-foot academic center. Cline didn’t want his name on the athletic facility, but Hamrick said the university insisted.
“Whenever I needed something, all I had to do is pick the phone up and call him, and it was there,” Hamrick said. “He was there.”
Cline was married twice — first to Sabrina Cline, who died of cancer in 1987, and then to Kelly Cline, from whom he was divorced. At one point, he dated Elin Nordegren, a Swedish former model and Tiger Woods’s ex-wife, according to several reports.
In 2012, Cline was among several billionaires targeted in an extortion scheme by aspiring actor Vivek Shah. Rather than keep trying to make money from small parts in movies, the FBI said, Shah threatened to kill the families of seven billionaires if they did not wire money to offshore bank accounts. Shah’s plan included demanding $13 million from Cline.
Shah, of West Hollywood, Calif., pleaded guilty to the scheme in May 2013 and was sentenced to seven years in prison that September, the FBI said.