Billionaire US coal baron Cline dies in helicopter crash

Christopher Cline, the billionaire coal tycoon best known for reviving the Illinois mining industry and making a fortune doing it, died in a helicopter crash Thursday.

Cline died in an accident off the Bahamas along with his daughter, Kameron Cline, and five others, Brian Glasser, an attorney who represented Cline, said by telephone. He was the founder of St. Louis, Missouri-based coal miner Foresight Energy LP, a joint venture with Robert Murray’s Murray Energy Corp.

Cline, who died a day shy of his 61st birthday, was born into coal. His grandfather dug up the rock with a pickaxe, and he himself started working the mines at 22. Ten years later, he founded the Cline Group to extract coal from the hollows and rolling hills of Appalachia. He created Foresight to expand into Illinois in 2006. At its peak, the company was valued at more than $2.6 billion.

“Chris Cline built an empire and on every occasion was always there to give,” West Virginia Governor — and fellow coal miner — Jim Justice said on Twitter.

Foresight and Cline Group didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment left late Thursday. Glasser said Cline’s team was in touch with Foresight Chief Executive Officer Robert Moore. “Chris had total confidence in Rob Moore, and that remains,” he said.

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

Foresight has traded at a fraction of what it did when Cline first took it public in 2014, weighed down by collapsing coal prices, increased competition and waning demand. The company said in May that it was suspending dividends while also cutting earnings and shipment forecasts for the year. Its shares plunged the most intraday in almost three years on the announcement.

“New king coal”

Cline was no stranger to politics. In 2017 it was revealed he gave $1 million to President Donald Trump’s inaugural committee. Two years earlier, he revealed himself as the donor behind a $1 million contribution to a super-PAC supporting Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign.

Raised in a West Virginia town of 200 residents, Cline became one of the richest coal barons in America. According to a 2010 Bloomberg Markets profile, which dubbed him the “New King Coal”, he owned a 164-foot yacht called Mine Games and a 34,400-square-foot (3,200-square-meter) oceanfront mansion in Florida. The same profile noted that he would cruise Illinois in an Italian-made AgustaWestland helicopter with his Australian shepherd.

“He was a young man,” Glasser said. “He was audacious. He was a great man, and he will be missed.”

Tragedy haunted Cline. His first wife died of breast cancer in 1987, and his best friend, Sidney Green, died in 2002 when the roof collapsed in Cline’s mine near Wharton, West Virginia.

Cline said in a 2010 Bloomberg profile that he was already thinking about when his sons Christopher and Alex, then 16 and 15, would be old enough to join his business. He said that they would need college educations and to be toughened up for life underground. To help his children, including two daughters, appreciate their privileged lives, Cline said at the time that he sometimes made them fly commercial, introduced them to miners and showed them videos of when he started out.

He said at the time that he hoped the films instilled a sense of what it took to rise from a life in a West Virginia backwater and become a billionaire.

(By Lynn Doan)

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