Ansley Crabtree was trying to help her sister, Elizabeth Szala of Goose Creek, on Nov. 23 by getting Szala's three children out of the house for a while.

"I had taken the kids to the (Wannamaker County) park so Elizabeth could get the house clean for Thanksgiving," said Crabtree, who lives in Moncks Corner.

She planned the outing for her 6-year-old twins, Sam and Samantha, and her sister's three children, Zach, 8; Abbey, 7; and Ben, 2.

The day turned tragic when Zach, a third-grader at Howe Hall Arts Infused Magnet School, was bitten on the calf twice by a rattlesnake. He was listed Tuesday in serious condition in intensive care at Medical University Hospital, according to hospital officials.

"We were only about 15 feet into the woods and the boys were standing on a dead tree," Crabtree said. "I was right behind Zach, and he stepped over the tree and I think what happened is he stepped onto the snake."

Crabtree recognized it as a rattler. Based on bite measurements, officials have estimated its length at 6 feet.

"I called 911 before we were even out of the woods," she said. "There was a bench there so I sat him down. Having all the other kids with me, it was almost like I couldn't panic. I had to keep the other kids calm and try to take care of Zach. They knew it was very serious. Even little Ben sat right there by Zach, and he never sits still."

When emergency workers arrived about five minutes later, Zach was having trouble breathing, she said. He was transported to the hospital, where he has been since.

"His organ functions are doing a lot better," Crabtree said Tuesday. "He still has a problem with facial paralysis, so they can't take the breathing tube out yet. Hopefully, once the venom gets out of his system, that will go away."

She estimated that Zach was given 40 vials of antivenom. Doctors have kept him sedated and when awake, he communicates with his hands, she said.

"They said this is the worst snake bite they've seen at MUSC," Crabtree said. "They have called every expert they can. They have no clue yet how long he might be in the hospital because they've not seen this before."

Hospital officials declined to comment.

Zach's parents, Elizabeth and Anthony Szala, and other family members have kept a bedside vigil, said Crabtree, who has been among them. Anthony is self-employed and Elizabeth is a homemaker.

"(The Szalas) are doing the best as they can," she said. "It's certainly been an emotional roller coaster. They're tired and worn out. I'm going to make my sister go home and get some rest. She's about to collapse."

Howe Hall Principal Chris Swetckie, who also is the Szalas' next-door neighbor, described the boy as "an absolute sweetheart." The school has rallied around him, he said. On Friday, students are encouraged to wear "crazy" hats in support of Zach. Students, their families and community members have sent letters and cards, and a fund has been set up to help with medical expenses, Swetckie said.

"Everybody's got the family in our thoughts and prayers," he said.

Reach Brenda Rindge at 937-5713 or on Facebook.