Billionaire Chris Cline dies in helicopter crash, governor says

Crash happened near the Bahamas

By Faith Karimi and Sheena Jones, CNN
Andrew Harrwe/Bloomberg via Getty via CNN

West Virginia coal billionaire and philanthropist Chris Cline 

(CNN) - West Virginia coal billionaire and philanthropist Chris Cline and six others died in a helicopter crash near the Bahamas on Thursday, that state's governor said.

"Today we lost a WV superstar and I lost a very close friend," Gov. Jim Justice tweeted. " ... Chris Cline built an empire and on every occasion was always there to give. What a wonderful, loving and giving man."

Six of the victims were from the United States, the Royal Bahamas Police Force said.

Police said a helicopter took off from Big Grand Cay around 2 a.m. local time Thursday and was reported missing more than 12 hours later around 2:50 p.m. when it didn't arrive in Fort Lauderdale, its intended destination.

Police officers and residents of Grand Cay discovered the aircraft overturned in 16 feet of water about two miles off Grand Cay in the Abacos and recovered the bodies of four females and three males, police said.

The Department of Civil Aviation, the Royal Bahamas Police and the Defense Force are investigating.

Cline's daughter, Kameron, 22, was among those on the aircraft, according to a family statement.

"This loss will be felt by all those who had the privilege of having known them. Chris was one of West Virginia's strongest sons, an American original, full of grit, integrity, intelligence and humor, a testament that our hopes and dreams are achievable when we believe and commit ourselves to action," the family said. "Our sister, Kameron, was a bright light to all who knew her, loving, smart, compassionate and full of joy and enthusiasm for life and other people."

The pilot of the helicopter has been identified as 52-year-old Geoffrey Lee Painter of Barnstaple, United Kingdom.

Bahamas police identified the others as David Jude, 56, of Kentucky; Brittney Layne Searson, 21, of Palm Beach, Florida; Jillian Nicole Clark, 22, of Los Angeles; and Delaney Lee Wykle, 22, of Washington, D.C.

Chris Cline, who would have turned 61 on Friday, was one of the charter members when Brenton Southern Baptist Church church started, it said in a statement. "Our thoughts and prayers are with his family. We will post more as it develops," the West Virginia church said.

Evan Jenkins, a justice at the West Virginia Supreme Court, said the state has lost a philanthropist who donated to several programs.

"His selfless and generous support for programs and projects throughout the state improved the lives of countless West Virginians," he said in a statement. "His life's story was one of hard work, love of family and caring support for others. My deepest condolences go out to his family.

Cline, a native of Beckley, went to Marshall University and donated millions of dollars to the school. In 2014, the university dedicated an athletic complex named after Cline.

He came from a family of coal miners

Cline grew up in a coal family -- his father and grandfather worked at mines.

He started working as an underground miner in West Virginia in 1980 at age 22, and a decade later founded his energy development company, the Cline Group.

His experience, proactive approach to mine development and the strength of his team enabled him to capitalize on opportunities others missed, his company Foresight Energy says on its website.

"The Cline Group was soon recognized across the industry as a reliable coal supplier, an excellent lessee, and a desired employer committed to the health and safety of its miners -- characteristics that continue to drive its success today," it said.

Cline Group operated underground coal mines in the country for several years before starting Foresight Energy to focus on Illinois mining.

Foresight Energy generated coal sales revenues of $1.097 billion last fiscal year, it says on its website.

CNN's Rebekah Riess contributed to this report.

The-CNN-Wire ™ & © 2019 Cable News Network, Inc., a Time Warner Company. All rights reserved.