WASHINGTON — Vice President Dick Cheney on Wednesday accepted full blame for shooting a fellow hunter and defended his decision to not publicly reveal the accident until the following day. He called it “one of the worst days of my life.”
“I’m the guy who pulled the trigger that fired the round that hit Harry,” Cheney told Fox News Channel in his first public comments since the shooting Saturday in south Texas.
Fox’s Brit Hume, who conducted the interview, said Cheney told him he had “a beer” with lunch hours before the accident. Hume said Cheney told him “no one was drinking” while hunting.
“You don’t hunt with people who drink. That’s not a good idea,” the vice president said.
Cheney described seeing 78-year-old Harry Whittington fall to the ground after he pulled the trigger while aiming at a covey of quail.
“The image of him falling is something I’ll never ever be able to get out of my mind,” Cheney said. “I fired, and there’s Harry falling. It was, I’d have to say, one of the worst days of my life at that moment.”
“We really didn’t know until Sunday morning that Harry was probably going to be OK, that it looked like there hadn’t been any serious damage to any vital organ,” he said. “And that’s when we began the process of notifying the press.”
‘I had no press person’
Regarding the more than 20 hours it took for the incident to be reported, Cheney told Hume, “Accuracy was enormously important. I had no press person with me.”
Katharine Armstrong, who owns the ranch where Cheney was shooting, ultimately reported the story to a local Texas newspaper, not Cheney himself.
“And so we were confident that Katharine was the right one, especially because she was an eyewitness and she could speak authoritatively on it. She probably knew better than I did what had happened since I’d only seen one piece of it.”
Cheney was soft-spoken and somber during the interview.
‘It was not Harry’s fault’
“You can talk about all of the other conditions that exist at the time but that’s the bottom line and — it was not Harry’s fault,” he said. “You can’t blame anybody else. I’m the guy who pulled the trigger and shot my friend.”
Texas officials said the shooting was an accident, and no charges have been brought against the vice president.
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A report that the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department issued Monday said Whittington was retrieving a downed bird and stepped out of the hunting line he was sharing with Cheney.
“Another covey was flushed and Cheney swung on a bird and fired, striking Whittington in the face, neck and chest at approximately 30 yards,” the report said.
Cheney said he fortunately always has a medical team with him, and members of that team responded to Whittington immediately after the accident.
“I ran over to him,” Cheney said. “He was laying there on his back, obviously bleeding. You could see where the shot struck him.”
He said he has no idea if he hit a bird because he was completely focused on Whittington.
“I said, ‘Harry, I had no idea you were there.’ He didn’t respond,” Cheney said.
Hume questioned Cheney on whether he felt he had put White House spokesman Scott McClellan in a tough position by making him answer questions about the shooting before Cheney spoke with the media.
Unapologetic on disclosure
“I’m comfortable with the way we did it, obviously. You can disagree with that, and some of the White House press corps clearly do. But, no, I’ve got nothing but good things to say about Scott McClellan and [Counselor to the President] Dan Bartlett,” he said.
“They’ve got a tough job to do and they do it well. They urged us to get the story out. The decision about how it got out, basically, was my responsibility.”
Cheney said he had agreed that Armstrong should be the one to make the story public because she was an eyewitness, because she grew up on the ranch and because she is “an acknowledged expert in all of this” as a past head of Parks and Wildlife. He also agreed with her decision to choose the Corpus Christi Caller-Times as the way to get the news out.
“I thought that made good sense because you can get as accurate a story as possible from somebody who knew and understood hunting and then it would immediately go up to the wires and be posted on the Web site, which is the way it went out and I thought that was the right call,” Cheney said.
“What do you think now?” Hume asked.
“I still do,” Cheney responded.
Whittington was reported doing well at a Texas hospital Wednesday after doctors said that a pellet entered his heart and that he had what they called caused “a mild heart attack.”
One pellet from Cheney’s shotgun — a pellet just under one-tenth of an inch in diameter — traveled to Whittington’s heart. Hospital officials said the Texan had a normal heart rhythm again Wednesday afternoon and was sitting up in a chair, eating regular food and planning to do some legal work in his room.
‘Doing extremely well’
Whittington was still in intensive care Wednesday, but only for personal privacy reasons, said Peter Banko, administrator of Christus Spohn Hospital Corpus Christi-Memorial.
“He’s doing extremely well right now,” Banko said. His doctors have said they are highly optimistic about his recovery.
Through hospital officials, Whittington has declined to comment.
“He still kind of wonders what all the hoopla is about,” Banko said. He said Whittington sees it as “much ado about nothing.”
Cheney was using No. 7½ shot from a 28-gauge shotgun. Shotgun pellets typically are made of steel or lead; the pellets in No. 7½ shot are just under one-tenth of an inch in diameter.
The pellet that traveled to Whittington’s heart was either touching or embedded in the heart muscle near the top chambers, called the atria, officials said.
It caused inflammation that pushed on the heart in a way that temporarily blocked blood flow, what the doctors called a “silent heart attack.”
This is not a traditional heart attack where an artery is blocked, and doctors said that Whittington’s arteries were healthy. The invading pellet also irritated the atria and caused an irregular heartbeat.
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