Beckley native Chris Cline, the billionaire mining entrepreneur, coal tycoon and benefactor to southern West Virginia, died in a helecopter crash in the Bahamas on Thursday. Six others, including a daughter, were on board and presumed dead, according to multiple friends of the Cline family.
They said that Cline’s helicopter was en route to Fort Lauderdale from the Bahamas due to a possible illness of someone on board, when it crashed into the Atlantic Ocean.
Nassau authorities reported that a submerged helicopter with seven aboard had been found near Walker’s Cay, the northernmost island in the Bahamas, but could not officially verify that all aboard had died.
Walker’s cay is about 130 miles east of Fort Lauderdale.
West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice confirmed reports of Cline’s death Thursday evening in a tweet.
“West Virginia lost a super star, without any question,” Justice wrote. “A giving, good man.
“I just love him with all my soul,” he said of Cline. “As governor, I will tell you we’ve lost a great West Virginian.”
The Justice family had first owned Pioneer Fuel, said Justice.
“Chris ended up with Pioneer fuel and bought it, really, from my dad,” said the governor. “Chris would always be there to give, and he’s a brilliant business guy, but he was always a giving guy.”
Justice said Cline, who would have turned 61 today, was a “close” family friend.
“Initial reports are coming in that a helicopter departed, I think it’s a cay near to Walker’s Cay, at 2 a.m. and I guess shortly after takeoff it crashed,” said Dionisio D’Aguilar, Minister of Tourism and Aviation.
“We’ve located the craft. It seems as if the seven passengers are still onboard so therefore submerged, but we can’t confirm anything yet.
“They’re attempting…to first of all go to the helicopter and retrieve any souls that are onboard and start the investigation.”
He said the pilot of the helicopter “made no request or permission to go” before the flight.
The (Nassau) Air Accident Investigation Department (AAID) received reports of the crash on Thursday, according to Chief Investigator Delvin Major.
Justice on Thursday told The Register-Herald that he could not yet officially identify others who lost their lives in the crash.
Cline had started working in coal mines at age 15. In the early 2000s, he bought high-sulfur coal reserves in Illinois, betting that the technology would make the dirty coal cleaner to burn. In 2014, he took coal mining firm Foresight Energy public and sold a controlling stake in 2015 for $1.5 billion cash, Forbes magazine reported.
In early 2017, Forbes reported, Cline had opened a new mine in Nova Scotia and had another one planned for western Canada.
As of Thursday, Forbes reported Cline’s real time net worth as $1.8 billion. He owned a 164-foot yacht called Mine Games, which features its own submarine.
Cline’s name began to pop up regularly in tabloid publications when he began dating pro golfer Tiger Woods’ ex-wife Elin Nordegren after the two famously divorced in 2010. Cline and Nordegren, who lived next door to one another in Palm Beach, split in 2014 but dated again in 2016. They were not a couple at the time of Cline’s death.
Cline owned a 150-acre property in Beckley and two neighboring oceanfront properties in Seminole Landing between North Palm and Juno Beach in Florida.
He was a strong supporter of Beckley, donating funds for the Paul Cline Memorial Sports Youth Complex on the East Beckley Bypass. Most recently, Cline had pledged $10 million for construction of a planned YMCA facility, featuring an indoor aquatic center, on the hillside above the soccer field.
Through the nonprofit Cline Family Foundation, Cline supported West Virginia University, donating $5 million to the WVU Intercollegiate School of Athletics and the School of Medicine. The Cline Family Foundation gave $8 million to Marshall University in 2014, leading to construction of the Chris Cline Athletic Complex and supporting medical studies.
Cline had studied psychology at Marshall University.
He was the father of four children — daughters Kameron and Candice Cline and sons Alex and Christopher. He had been married twice, losing his first wife to cancer and being divorced from his second.
Nassau authorities had not verified reports Thursday night that one of Cline’s daughters was aboard the helicopter when it crashed, despite unconfirmed reports from Cline friends.
Beckey Mayor Rob Rappold said he was “numb” on hearing the news of Cline’s death and others. Rappold chose to focus on Cline’s death in his public comments Thursday evening, pending identification of any Beckleyans who were aboard the helicopter.
“Words can’t express the absolute sorrow and disbelief,” said the mayor. “Southern West Virginia was Chris’ love and his legacy of compassion and giving back will last forever.”