Vice President Dick Cheney, quail hunting on a South Texas ranch, accidentally shot and wounded a 78-year-old companion Saturday, hitting him with a spray of shotgun pellets, his office said Sunday.
Harry Whittington, a prominent lawyer from Austin, Texas, was being treated for head injuries at Christus Spohn Memorial Hospital in Corpus Christi, hospital spokeswoman Michele Trevino said Sunday. She said he was in stable condition in the intensive care unit.
Cheney’s press secretary, Lea Anne McBride, said the vice president visited Whittington in the hospital Sunday afternoon before returning to Washington. Whittington was described as being in “good spirits” during Cheney’s visit. McBride said the vice president also spoke by telephone to Whittington’s wife.
The accident occurred late Saturday afternoon at the Armstrong Ranch, a 50,000-acre spread southwest of Corpus Christi at Armstrong. It was first reported Sunday on the website of the Corpus Christi Caller-Times.
Cheney’s office did not say why news of the incident was not released the day it happened, and referred requests for that information to ranch owner Katharine Armstrong.
The Times could not reach Armstrong for comment.
She told other reporters at the ranch Sunday that Cheney was using a 28-gauge shotgun -- a popular size for hunting small birds -- and that Whittington was about 30 yards away when he was hit, according to Associated Press.
Armstrong said she was sitting in a vehicle and watched as Cheney, Whittington and another hunter spotted a covey of quails. Whittington shot a bird and left to look for it as Cheney and the other hunter located a second covey and walked ahead of Whittington to take their shots.
At that point, Whittington “came up from behind the vice president and the other hunter and didn’t signal them or indicate to them or announce himself,” Armstrong told Associated Press in an interview.
“The vice president didn’t see him,” she said. “The covey flushed and the vice president picked out a bird and was following it and shot. And by God, Harry was in the line of fire and got peppered pretty good.”
All the hunters were wearing bright orange vests, she said.
Dr. Marshall Morgan, chief of emergency medicine at UCLA Medical Center, said the severity of shotgun injuries depended on the distance between the gun and the person hit by it. “A shotgun injury to a person, unless it’s at close range, is unlikely to produce a lethal injury that a handgun or a rifle would,” he said.
When a shotgun goes off, the pellets are in a relatively tight pattern, able to inflict severe damage within 20 feet, Morgan said. But as they travel, the pellets spread out and slow down.
“The really controlling factor is the distance,” he said.
Whittington was treated on the scene by personnel who travel with the vice president, then taken to Memorial, the closest general trauma center.
Armstrong told Associated Press that the pellets broke the skin, causing bleeding.
“It knocked him silly, but he was fine,” she said. “He was talking. His eyes were open. It didn’t get in his eyes or anything like that.”
Armstrong described the incident as something “that happens from time to time.... I’ve been peppered pretty well myself.”
Cheney is an avid sportsman, frequently leaving the capital for hunting and fishing excursions.
He spends many weekends and much of August at his vacation home outside Jackson, Wyo., and he headed there when his campaign chores ended in November 2004. He has gone duck hunting in Louisiana with Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and recently purchased a home on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, along birds’ migration path.
The Humane Society of the United States criticized the vice president three years ago for his participation in a so-called canned hunt in which he reportedly bagged more than 70 pheasants and an unknown number of ducks at a private club in Pennsylvania. In a canned hunt, captive-reared animals are released in large numbers, often in a confined space.
Cheney has visited the Armstrong Ranch several times, including recent annual hunting trips. In October, he delivered a eulogy at the funeral of Katharine Armstrong’s father, Tobin.
Katharine’s mother, Anne, has long been a power in Texas Republican circles and was appointed by President Ford to be U.S. ambassador to Britain, a post typically reserved for high-level party contributors. She was on the board of Halliburton Co. when Cheney became chief executive of the oil services company in 1995.
As governor of Texas, George W. Bush named Katharine Armstrong to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission in 1999. She was appointed chairwoman of the commission by Bush’s successor as governor, Republican Rick Perry.
Whittington, a wealthy real estate investor, is also politically active. As governor, Bush named him to the Texas Funeral Services Commission. He has also served on the state’s Department of Corrections Board, the Public Finance Authority Board and the Office of Patient Protection.
Armstrong said that although Cheney and Whittington had hunted on the ranch before, she believed this was the first time they had been there together.
Times staff writers Charles Ornstein and Julie Cart in Los Angeles contributed to this report.