The Java coastal area was spared by the devastating Asian tsunami of 2004, but many residents recognized the danger when they saw the sea recede.
At least 23,000 people fled their homes, either because they were destroyed or in fear of another tsunami, Dudi Junaidi, an official at an emergency coordination post in the worst-hit area of Pangandaran on Java's southern coast, said Tuesday.
Frantic tourists and villagers shouted "Tsunami! Tsunami!" as the wave more than 6 feet high approached. Some climbed trees or fled to higher ground to escape while others crowded into inland mosques to pray.
"We saw a big wall of black water. I ran with my son in my arms when I looked back, the waves were at our house, they destroyed our house," said Ita Anita, who was on the beach with her 11-month-old child and other relatives. "The water knocked me down, my son slipped out of my hands and was taken by the water."
Anita, 20, and her husband live 30 feet from the beach in Pangandaran, a resort popular with tourists. Also on the beach were her son, mother, sister, brother, nephews. All except her mother are missing.
She said a series of large waves as tall as coconut trees came and then the water began to recede.
"When the wave receded, there was total panic. Everybody was looking for everybody," Anita said from her hospital bed at the Pangandaran medical clinic. She said she was swept inland by the wave into a rice paddy, tossed around and dragged across asphalt before she managed to climb to safety on the roof of a house.
Early Tuesday, desperate villagers and soldiers dug through destroyed homes and hotels looking for survivors as the death toll rose to at least 174, officials said.
Junaidi said at least 172 people were killed in the Panganderan area, while the state news agency Antara said 41 others died in nearby Cilacap district. Thirteen others died elsewhere along the coast, officials and el-Shinta radio station reported.
Junaidi also said 86 people were missing in the Panganderan area. He said a Pakistani national, a Swedish national and a Dutch national were among the dead.
"I don't mind losing any of my property, but please God return my son," said Basril, as he and wife tearfully searched though mounds of debris pile up on the beach at Pangandaran, a resort area popular with foreign tourists.
Nearby, the body of a woman lay on the beach, covered with a mat.