The Turrell family had only been on the beach at Hilton Head Island in South Carolina for about an hour when 10-year-old Jei Turrell ran from the water, screaming “shark!”
“I immediately thought he was messing around then saw blood and flesh on his arm,” Jei’s mom, Tonya Turrell, tells PEOPLE. “I had a towel wrapped around my waist so I took it off and wrapped it around his arm immediately and put pressure. [I] ran up to the lifeguard stand.”
Jei and his older brother Tai, 12, had been splashing around in the waist-deep water when they spotted the shark as it bit deep into Jei’s right forearm. A lifeguard called an ambulance and Jei was airlifted to the Memorial University Medical Center in Savannah, Georgia.
The family followed behind in their car, and Tonya says she prayed that her son would be okay.
“It’s surreal. [I didn’t know] what was happening,” she tells PEOPLE. “I’m just so grateful that he’s alive and has his arm.”
Photos of the injury showed deep wounds down to Jei’s bone. Doctors stitched the bite that expanded nearly the length of the boy’s forearm. Jei remained in the hospital for about a day, and his father, Paul, says the boy has been trying to stay positive.
“He’s handled this amazing. He definitely doesn’t want to go to the beach anymore!” Paul tells PEOPLE.
“He’s staying brave in front of others, but when we’re just laying down talking, he can’t understand why it happened to him. We keep explaining that it’s just one of those things, but he just can’t comprehend it.”
Paul and Tonya say they have not heard from Hilton Head Island officials in the wake of the incident. In a statement to PEOPLE, representatives for Hilton Head Island said they are “happy” that Jei is doing well.
“We send our best wishes for a speedy recovery. Recorded shark attacks on Hilton Head Island, which plays host to 2.7 million visitors each year, are extremely rare,” officials added in the statement.
“Visitors to Hilton Head Island’s beaches can be assured that Shore Beach Services vigilantly monitors conditions both in the water and out in an effort to keep thousands of beachgoers safe every day.”
In 2017, there were 10 confirmed shark attacks in the state — eight occurred on Hilton Head Island, according to The Island Packet. And Tonya says officials could have done more to warn visitors.
“This could have been prevented,” Tonya says of the attack. “They need to make it known that this is an issue and keep families safe.”