WASHINGTON Soft-spoken and contrite, Dick Cheney relived the horrible moment when he fired his shotgun at a quail only to see his bloodied hunting companion drop to the ground.
"I ran over to him," Cheney said, telling his version of shooting 78-year-old Harry Whittington on Saturday for the first time Wednesday to Fox News Channel. "He was laying there on his back, obviously, bleeding. You could see where the shot struck him."
He said Whittington was conscious and breathing but stunned silent.
"I said, 'Harry, I had no idea you were there.' He didn't respond," Cheney said.
The vice president tried to stem the damage from a public relations disaster for the White House, accepting responsibility for the accident while defending his decision to keep it from the public until the next day.
"You can't blame anybody else," Cheney told Fox's Brit Hume in a half-hour interview. "I'm the guy who pulled the trigger and shot my friend.
"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."
Cheney said he had had a beer at lunch that day but nobody was drinking when they went back out to hunt a couple hours later at a sprawling Texas ranch owned by mutual friends. Law enforcement officials have ruled out alcohol as a factor.
The vice president has been under intense political pressure to speak out about the accident, which has become a public relations embarrassment and potential political liability for the White House.
Senior advisers to President Bush worried that Cheney's silence had suggested a possible cover-up, and Cheney acknowledged that he delayed an announcement over the advice of Bush's press advisers.
"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."
Cheney said he agreed to the suggestion of ranch owner Katharine Armstrong to have her announce it to a local newspaper. "I thought that was the right call. I still do," the vice president said.
Armstrong has suggested that Whittington was at fault in the shooting because, she said, he failed to announce himself as he rejoined the hunting line. But Cheney, who has been hunting for at least 12 years, said in no uncertain terms that Whittington was not to blame.
"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.
Texas officials said the shooting was an accident, and no charges have been brought.
Cheney said the accident happened after Whittington stepped out of the hunting party to retrieve a downed bird in deep cover.
Cheney said he and a third hunter walked about 100 yards away to where another covey had been spotted. He said immediately after he shot at a bird flying to his right, he saw Whittington in his line of fire.
He said Whittington was dressed properly in orange and the upper part of his body was visible, but he was standing in a gully with the sun behind him, which affected his view.
"I saw him fall, basically. It had happened so fast," Cheney said. "He was struck in the right side of his face, his neck and his upper torso on the right side of his body."
Whittington was in stable condition Wednesday at a Texas hospital, a day after doctors said one of the pellets traveled to his heart and he had what they called "a mild heart attack."
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 the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. 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. "The accuracy was enormously important. I had no press person with me."
Cheney said he was concerned that if the story broke Saturday night when information was still coming in, some reports may have been inaccurate since it was a complicated story that most journalists had never dealt with before.
"I've been in the business for a long time and never seen a situation quite like this," Cheney said. "We've had experiences where the president has been shot. We've never had a situation where the vice president shot somebody."
Cheney said he personally first told the White House about the accident Sunday morning in a phone call to Chief of Staff Andy Card. He said he didn't discuss it with Bush until Monday when he was back in Washington.
Cheney said White House press secretary Scott McClellan and communications strategist Dan Bartlett urged him to get the story out quickly, but he made the decision how to handle it.
"I had a bit of the feeling that the press corps was upset because, to some extent, it was about them they didn't like the idea that we called the Corpus Christi Caller-Times instead of The New York Times," he said.
"But it strikes me that the Corpus Christi Caller-Times is just as valid a news outlet as The New York Times is, especially for covering a major story in south Texas."
Associated Press writer Lynn Brezosky contributed to this report from Corpus Christi.