Warning: This story contains graphic images.
A 12-year-old boy and his mother are warning others about the dangers of crocodiles after he was attacked by a reptile during a family vacation in Mexico.
Charlie Buhl tells PEOPLE his life was forever changed when he played hide-and-seek with some friends on the pool deck of Club Med Cancún on June 18. While hiding on the staircase that led to the lagoon, Charlie was suddenly ambushed by a massive, 10- to 13-foot crocodile, which jumped out of the water and grabbed onto his leg, the boy recalls.
"It felt like I got stabbed," he says. "I knew it was real, but I didn't want it to be real."
His mom Jennifer and 7-year-old brother Johnny had to extend their vacation by four weeks as Charlie underwent several medical procedures in a Cancún hospital.
In July, he was finally cleared to go home to Philadelphia, where he's been focused on his recovery — and sharing his story so others don't experience a similar fate.
"I'm not scared to talk about it [or] go to that same hotel again," he says. "But I would not sit on the same staircase because if I knew that there were crocodiles in there [and] I could have gotten bit, I wouldn't have sat."
courtesy Jennifer Buhl Charlie Buhl after the attack
In a statement to PEOPLE, a spokesperson for Club Med says they were "deeply saddened by the incident" and "continue to provide assistance to the family." Club Med has since taken measures — including the installation of warning signs, lights and "taller fencing" — to prevent additional attacks, the spokesperson says.
Jennifer says the resort's assistance has included 100% coverage of the family's medical bills.
courtesy Jennifer Buhl Charlie Buhl in the hospital bed with his younger brother Johnny Buhl
Reflecting on that scary night, Charlie says it was a friend who first told him about the "great hiding spot on the stairs right next to the lagoon," where the friend had hidden during the prior round.
According to Jennifer, 50, the stairs lead down to the lagoon, which is frequently used for daytime excursions at the resort, and have a metal gate, which had "no lock" and "no signs or warnings."
As Charlie sat with a friend around 8:55 p.m., he was suddenly pulled into the water, the family claims.
"Charlie kept grabbing the stairs to try to pull himself up... but couldn't," Jennifer says, noting that the boys' screams eventually alerted a nearby mom to rush to the scene.
"She heard the screams and recognized them as off, not being like children playing," Jennifer explains. "[Her family] all came running... when they arrived, Charlie was under the water. They couldn't see him."
courtesy Jennifer Buhl Charlie Buhl with his leg scar from the surgery
According to Jennifer, a group of men also came to help and one began pulling Charlie away from the reptile while three others hit the croc with their fists and feet and covered its eyes with a pillow from the pool deck. After much back-and-forth tugging, the reptile released its grip on Charlie's leg and the group lifted him to safety on the pool deck.
Charlie says he can vividly recall the croc "squeezing" his leg and pulling "as hard as it could."
"I remember it pulling me under twice... But when I looked, I could still see the light so I know I was only under for like, a half a second," he recalls. "At the beginning, it didn't hurt at all. It just felt like if someone grabbed your leg and squeezed it with their hands tightly."
"It almost felt like its teeth were holding the blood in because it hurt less with its teeth in [my leg] than when I was on the ground [after]," he adds.
As for Jennifer, who was eating dinner at a restaurant overlooking the pool deck, the evening was more of a blur.
"I was described at the time [like] a bull in a china shop," she recalls. "My body was in a panic."
Fearing the worst amid the confusion, Jennifer asked herself, "What will I do if he's dead?"
"I got to where he was on the pool deck and just fell on his chest," she adds. "I was comforted that he was warm and he was speaking and crying... And then I just started praying because that was what came naturally. There was nothing for me to do but pray."
Jennifer says it took about 30 minutes for an ambulance to arrive at the scene before Charlie was transported to a hospital, where she was told her son's injuries were "extremely serious" and he "would likely lose the leg."
"It was pretty terrifying," says Jennifer.
Her worries were later alleviated after Charlie underwent surgery and doctors were able to save his leg by stapling the open skin flap. Still, they were concerned about exposure to bacteria, because "crocodiles are very dirty creatures, as are lagoons," Jennifer says.
"The doctor said it's not [a matter of] if there's bacteria inside of him — it's what kind," she explains. "So they would follow up every three days with surgical cleanings in the OR."
courtesy Jennifer Buhl Jennifer Buhl with her sons Charlie and Johnny
Along with those cleanings, Charlie underwent 15 hyperbaric chamber treatments and was put on a Vitamin C drip — all of which was covered by Club Med — before being discharged, his mom says.
Today, the 12-year-old boy is slowly working on regaining his mobility and getting back to the game he loves: soccer.
"I can walk and run with a limp... I can still kick the soccer ball, but I still can't [play in] a game yet," he explains.
Charlie and his mom are also on a mission to spread word about crocodiles near resorts in Cancún.
"It's a massive tourist attraction and there need to be warnings at the airports or hotels," Jennifer says. "The lagoon also needs to be separated better from the people with so many crocodiles in there."
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Adds Charlie: "I just want people to know that they can die in there."
"The safety and security of our guests and staff is our highest priority," a spokesperson says in the resort's statement to PEOPLE. "Club Med Cancún has reinforced the area around the lagoon by increasing the number of signs, lighting and installing taller fencing to further protect the safety of our guests and staff from the surrounding lagoon."
"Existing warning signs in various locations at the resort have been expanded and increased to warn of the presence and potential danger of wildlife in the lagoon, including crocodiles," the spokesperson adds. "Club Med met with government officials and environmental ministries to voice concerns about the ongoing management of protected natural lagoons. Club Med reviews all of its safety protocols regularly and continues to assess if additional measures need to be taken."