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Cheney: "You can't blame anybody else'

Speaking publicly for the first time since he shot a fellow hunter four days earlier, Vice President Dick Cheney took responsibility for the accident and said it was "one of the worst days of my life."

In an interview with Fox News Channel, Cheney said: "You can't blame anybody else. I'm the guy who pulled the trigger and shot my friend."

He described the harrowing moments on the South Texas ranch Saturday when he realized he had shot Harry Whittington, a lawyer who was hunting quail with him.

After Whittington fell to the ground, bleeding, Cheney rushed to his side.

"Harry, I had no idea you were there," Cheney told his friend. Whittington did not reply.

The vice president said he had one beer at lunch, but that "nobody was drinking, nobody was under the influence" while hunting. The accident occurred about 5:30 p.m.

Despite criticism that he acted too slowly to inform the public and apologize about Saturday's accident, Cheney said he had no regrets.

He said he agreed when ranch owner Katharine Armstrong offered to make the announcement by calling a local newspaper. It made sense, Cheney said, because she was a witness to the shooting and because she is a former official of the state Parks and Wildlife Department.

They decided that she would call a Corpus Christi newspaper because they believed a reporter there would understand hunting.

She called the paper at 8 a.m. Sunday, but did not make contact with the reporter until several hours later.

"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," Cheney said.

Some Republicans have said Cheney should have released the news more quickly and done so through the White House.

Ari Fleischer, former press secretary for President Bush, said before Cheney's interview that the vice president's decision to withhold the news had damaged the Bush administration.

"The vice president should have immediately disclosed this Saturday night or at the latest, Sunday morning, and it should have been disclosed to the White House press corps," Fleischer said.

Fleischer said that when President Bush passed out after choking on a pretzel, Fleischer quickly notified the news media.

"The instinct was to immediately get it out, to tell the White House press corps," he said. "The vice president has a different instinct. In this case, I don't think his instinct served him or the president well."

But Cheney defended the decision.

"I thought that was the right call," Cheney said. "I still do."

Whittington was reported doing well at a Texas hospital Wednesday, a day after doctors said that a pellet entered his heart and he had what they called "a mild heart attack."

Hospital officials said the 78-year-old Texan, though still listed in intensive care, had a normal heart rhythm again Wednesday afternoon and was sitting up in achair, eating and planning to do some legal work in his room.

In the interview, Cheney described his visit to the ranch and the dramatic minutes after he mistakenly shot his friend.

The vice president said he often hunted at the wide-open ranch because it has "some of the best quail hunting any place in the country."

He said the incident occurred after a covey of quail had been flushed out of the brush.

"There were three of us who had gotten out of the vehicle and walked up on a covey of quail that had been pointed by the dogs. Covey is flushed, we've shot, and each of us got a bird. Harry couldn't find his, it had gone down in some deep cover, and so he went off to look for it."

In the meantime, Cheney and the other hunter walked about 100 yards in another direction where another covey had been spotted. He saw a bird to his right.

"I turned and shot at the bird, and at that second, saw Harry standing there. Didn't know he was there."

Interviewer Brit Hume asked, "You had pulled the trigger and you saw him?"

"Well, I saw him fall, basically. It had happened so fast," Cheney said.

Cheney said that Whittington was dressed in the proper blaze orange clothing that hunters are supposed to wear but that he was down in a gully and the vice president had difficulty seeing him because the sun was behind him.

"The image of him falling is something I'll never be able to get out of my mind," Cheney said. "I fired, and there's Harry falling. And it was, I'd have to say, one of the worst days of my life, at that moment."

Cheney ran to him.

"He was laying there on his back, obviously, bleeding. You could see where the shot struck him," Cheney said.

A medical team that accompanies Cheney quickly arrived and began treating Whittington. The vice president said his friend had been wearing hunting glasses, which protected his eyes from the shotgun pellets.

Asked if they had been drinking alcohol, Cheney said, "I had a beer at lunch. After lunch we take a break, go back to ranch headquarters. Then we took about an hourlong tour of ranch, with a ranch hand driving the vehicle, looking at game. We didn't go back into the field to hunt quail until about, oh, sometime after 3 p.m."

White House aides had suggested that Whittington had stepped into the line of fire by walking into the brush to find the bird. Press secretary Scott McClellan told reporters Monday that, according to Armstrong's account, "the protocol was not followed by Mr. Whittington when it came to notifying the others that he was there."

But in the interview, Cheney said he took full responsibility.

"Ultimately, I'm the one that fired the round that hit Harry," he said. "You can talk about all the other conditions that existed at the time, but that's the bottom line. It was not Harry's fault."

Information from Times wires was used in this report

ON THE ACCIDENT

"Well, ultimately, I'm the guy who pulled the trigger that fired the round that hit Harry. ... And there's no - it was not Harry's fault."

ON THE DELAYED NEWS

"Well, my first reaction ... was not to think: I need to call the press. My first reaction is: My friend, Harry, has been shot and we've got to take care of him."

ON THE WEB

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