Billionaire Chris Cline's Daughter Died with Him in Helicopter Crash: 'We Are All So Deeply Saddened,' Family Says
Early on the Fourth of July, the small helicopter carrying billionaire coal tycoon Chris Cline, his daughter Kameron Cline, her friend Brittney Searson and four others smashed into the ocean off the coast of the Bahamas, en route to Florida.
All seven passengers were killed. The crash is under investigation.
“I still can’t believe it,” Greg Cline, Chris’ older brother, told The Palm Beach Post on Friday. “It’s like a dream … We were so close, all of us were.”
In a separate statement released to PEOPLE, the Cline family confirmed the passing of Chris and Kameron and spoke about the absence their deaths will leave.
“We are all so deeply saddened … This loss will be felt by all those who had the privilege of having known them,” the family said.
Chris, his family said, “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.”
He was worth $1.8 billion, according to Forbes, having sold a $1.4 billion stake in his Foresight Energy in 2015. A West Virginia native, Chris, 60, began working in the state’s coal mines at age 22, according to CNN. He later founded the Cline Group and Foresight.
Daughter Kameron had recently graduated from Louisiana State University, her uncle Greg told the Post. She was 22, according to The New York Times. A family spokesman said she had three siblings: Tanner, 24; Logan, 25; and Candace, 37.
Greg described Kameron as “a sweet person,” and the family’s statement remembered her as “a bright light to all who knew her, loving, smart, compassionate and full of joy and enthusiasm for life and other people.”
Father and daughter left a “legacy of love and inspiration,” the family’s statement continued. “[It] 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.”
Joining Chris and Kameron on the flight was Searson, a friend, former classmate and roommate of Kameron’s, according to the Post, which spoke with her mother.
She was “a leader, strong, smart girl, beautiful,” Kimberly Searson told the newspaper.
The group was in the Bahamas for vacation for the holiday, according to Kimberly. Brittney, 21, and Kameron were close, Kimberly said.
Brittney’s family has since launched a GoFundMe page in her name to benefit the Brittney L. Searson Memorial Fund to aid The Benjamin School dance department, in which Brittney participated throughout middle and high school.
The group was returning to Florida because of a possible illness, according to the Beckley Register-Herald, citing friends’ accounts.
The other victims were not immediately identified.
According to the Post, the Clines’ helicopter left Big Grand Cay, a private island estate in the Bahamas, around 2 a.m. on Thursday. But it apparently went down almost immediately after and was found about a mile into the Atlantic Ocean off of nearby Grand Cay.
The crash was first reported to authorities about 5 p.m. Thursday, according to the Times.
In addition to his work in mining, Chris was a major Republican donor and philanthropist. He would have turned 61 on Friday, the Times reported.
He “gave to anybody that needed anything,” brother Greg told the Post, adding, “He always knew what to do.”
A friend and business partner of Chris’, Bartow Jones, tells PEOPLE that Chris was a fierce competitor — both in business and in fun and games — who intentionally blurred the professional and personal in his many friendships.
“He balanced it in a way by co-mingling them,” says Jones, who with his wife and three kids had visited Chris’ West Virginia home, which had a large lake on which to water ski and ride Wave Runners, a half-mile go-kart track with more than a half-dozen gas-fueled racers, and an air-conditioned stable as a base for horseback riding.
In addition, “he had a great paintball course, and he would teach the kids to play paintball,” says Jones. “He would challenge the kids, but he didn’t have a gun … it was more ‘hunt’ than anything else, but the kids loved it.”
“Chris had a lot of success and had been to a lot of places,” says Jones, “but what he liked to do for fun never changed.”
“He’s a remarkable man who took what he learned growing up … and took on the world and did it with confidence,” says Jones. Upon learning of Chris’ financial gifts over the years to West Virginia University and alma mater Marshall University, “it didn’t surprise me that his philanthropy was focused on West Virginia,” he says. “He was very proud of where he came from.”
• With reporting by JEFF TRUESDELL