By AMELIA FERRELL KNISELY
CHARLESTON - The family of Christopher Cline, the self-made billionaire coal baron who died in a helicopter crash along with his daughter and five other people, issued statements praising the two family members they had lost and asking for privacy in the wake of the crash.
The Cline family released a statement Friday afternoon that said, in part, "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 ... We ask for prayers and privacy in our time of grieving."
The crash also killed four women and three men, including Cline's 22-year-old daughter, Kameron Cline, who recently graduated from Louisiana State University.
The Cline family described Kameron Cline as a "bright light to all who knew her."
LSU President F. King Alexander confirmed in a statement that two of the other women killed in the crash were LSU students who had graduated in May, according to The Advocate.
David Jude, the helicopter pilot from West Virginia, was also among those killed, as was Delaney Wykle, who was from Beckley and whose parents both attended Marshall University.
A cause of the crash has not been released. The Associated Press reports that aviation safety investigators in the Bahamas are working to determine the cause.
Once hailed the "New King Coal" by Bloomberg, Cline died one day short of his 61st birthday.
Cline, a Beckley native, worked his way up to being one of the country's top coal producers after dropping out of Marshall University at 22 to work in the mines with his father.
The Washington Post reports Cline was in his early 20s when he bought Pioneer Corp. from the father of Jim Justice, sparking Cline's friendship with the future West Virginia governor.
Cline formed the energy development group the Cline Group in 1990, which went on to be one of the top 20 coal producers in the United States.
In 2003, the Cline Group sold its mining production in West Virginia and in a few years began acquiring coal reserves in Illinois where he anticipated there would be renewed interest in high-sulfur and high-Btu coal.
Cline formed Foresight Energy LLC in 2006 in St. Louis, and according to the company's website, it is a leading producer of thermal coal with reserves in the Illinois Basin.
Under Cline's leadership, the company acquired 2.1 billion tons of coal reserves in four mines. The company also owns a mine in Nova Scotia, Canada.
Cline took the company public in 2014, though he later sold the controlling interest to Ohio-based Murray Energy for $1.37 billion in cash.
He resigned from Foresight's board in 2017, according to financial filings from the company.
Forbes estimated Cline's worth at $1.8 billion at the time of his death. He first landed on Forbes' list of billionaires in 2012 at No. 854. He was ranked as the 388th richest person in America in 2017.
Evan Jenkins, a justice on West Virginia's Supreme Court, said in a statement that Cline loved West Virginia.
"His selfless and generous support for programs and projects throughout the state improved the lives of countless West Virginians. His life's story was one of hard work, love of family and caring support for others," he said.
Cline was an avid philanthropist who gave millions in donations to Marshall University and West Virginia University.
Beginning in 2011, he donated $8.5 million to Marshall that led to the construction of Marshall's indoor athletic facility, sports medicine institute, hall of fame and state-of-the-art soccer complex.
Marshall University President Jerome Gilbert issued a statement saying, "The entire Marshall community is in disbelief and shock over the sad news of this tragic accident that took the life of a prominent Son of Marshall and so many others. Our hearts are heavy. Chris' generosity to our research and athletics programs has made a mark on Marshall University and our students for many years to come. I am praying for his family."
Cline donated $1 million to President Donald Trump's 2017 inauguration celebration, according to the Open Secrets site, a nonpartisan group that tracks campaign donations, and donated extensively to other Republican candidates.
Cline was married twice, according to The Washington Post. His first wife died of cancer in 1987, and he later married Kelly Cline, from whom he was divorced.
Amelia Ferrell Knisely is a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project. Reach Amelia Ferrell Knisely at firstname.lastname@example.org, 304-348-4886 or follow @AmeliaKnisely on Twitter.