NASSAU, Bahamas — Palm Beach County billionaire Chris Cline, his daughter and her friend were among the seven Americans killed in a helicopter crash in the Bahamas, sources confirm.
A spokesperson for Cline's attorney says the coal industry businessman and his daughter, 22-year-old Kameron Cline, were on board the aircraft when it went down.
The Cline family released a statement to our NBC partners, WSAZ:
"We are all so deeply saddened to announce the deaths of our beloved father Chris and our sister Kameron. 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. 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. Their legacy of love and inspiration will live on through all of us. We love and miss them dearly but take comfort knowing they are with God now. We ask for prayers and privacy in our time of grieving."
Flags are now at half staff at The Benjamin School in North Palm Beach, which confirms Kameron and 21-year-old Brittney Searson, another crash victim, were former students there.
The school says Cline and Searson graduated in 2015 and attended college together at Louisiana State University.
Searson (top) and Cline are pictured in a yearbook photo from The Benjamin School
"Our school community has been dealt a heavy blow today," said Interim Head of School Tom Reid in a statement. "Our hearts go out to the Cline and Searson families who both had multiple children attend and graduate from Benjamin."
Authorities in the Bahamas have recovered seven bodies from the helicopter that crashed as it traveled from the island to Fort Lauderdale.
Bahamas Police Supt. Shanta Knowles told The Associated Press on Friday that the search began off the islands of Big Grand Cay when police received a report from Florida that a group, including Cline, had failed to arrive as expected Thursday in Fort Lauderdale.
The helicopter was still in the water, and based on preliminary information, Supt. Knowles did not believe there had been a distress call before it went down.
A statement from the Royal Bahamas Police Force said authorities and local residents found the crash site two miles off Big Grand Cay, group of private islands that Cline owned.
The Register-Herald newspaper in Beckley, West Virginia, quoted Gov. Jim Justice as saying that Cline was among those killed. The newspaper described him as a billionaire mining entrepreneur, coal tycoon, and benefactor to southern West Virginia.
Cline owned a home in North Palm Beach in the Seminole Landing neighborhood.
His neighbor, Al Hoffman Jr., called the incident a tragedy and said, "He was a very generous man who wanted to make more because he wanted to do more good."
Lauree Simmons, the founder of Big Dog Ranch Rescue and a close friend of Cline's, posted a touching message on Facebook:
"He was an amazing client and friend for almost 20 years. He was so giving and supportive of our mission to save dogs and so loved his dog Nikki who passed last year... He loved his family and was a true inspiration to so many. I will always be grateful to have known him and been apart of his life on so so many design and build projects."
Cline also made a big impact on the families of Perry Cohen and Austin Stephanos, two Jupiter boys who disappeared on a boating trip in 2015. The Perry J. Cohen Foundation posted this tribute on Facebook:
"The Perry J. Cohen Foundation is extremely saddened to hear this terrible news - we send our prayers and love to Mr. Cline, the passengers, pilot and all family members during this extremely difficult and tragic time. Our family and community was fortunate to receive the generosity of Mr. Cline and his team first hand when Perry and Austin went missing. Mr. Cline when asked and without hesitation volunteered his helicopter, piliot and team to search for the boys on a daily basis. We will forever be grateful for all of his efforts, generosity and genuine concern for the safe return of the boys."
Bahamian police did not provide a cause of the crash, but said an investigation with civil aviation authorities was underway.
Chris Cline grew up in a coal mining family in West Virginia and even worked in the mines himself in his early 20s before eventually forming his coal empire, The Cline Group.
He had a reputation for charitable giving. He donated millions of dollars to Marshall Univeristy, his former school, and West Virginia University.
His attorney, Brian Glasser, shared a Tweet about Cline's humble beginnings:
Our client Chris Cline died today. 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. He was the most courageous client we ever had the privilege to represent. We will not see his like again. RIP. #chriscline— Brian Glasser (@Torensborg) July 5, 2019
Today we lost a WV superstar and I lost a very close friend. Our families go back to the beginning of the Cline empire - Pioneer Fuel. Chris Cline built an empire and on every occasion was always there to give. What a wonderful, loving, and giving man.— Governor Jim Justice (@WVGovernor) July 5, 2019
Two memorial funds have been set up in Brittney Searson's name. The money will go toward the dance program at The Benjamin School.
For more information on The Benjamin School Fund, click here.
For information on a separate GoFundMe account in Searson's name, click here.
WPTV and the Associated Press contributed to this report.