People inspect the damage at a tsunami-ravaged village in Sumur, Indonesia, Monday, Dec. 24, 2018. Doctors worked to save injured victims while hundreds of military and volunteers scoured debris-strewn beaches in search of survivors Monday after a deadly tsunami gushed ashore without warning on Indonesian islands, killing more hundreds of people on a busy holiday weekend. (AP Photo/Fauzy Chaniago)

LABUAN - Indonesian fisherman Yadi was at his seaside home on the west coast of Java island when he felt a light breeze picking up on Saturday night as hundreds of people milled about in nearby restaurants, enjoying barbecued fish.

Then a surge of seawater swept up the beach, scattering the crowds, flattening buildings, and sending parked cars crunching into trees.

At least 281 people were killed in tsunami waves of up to three metres (10 feet) that hit several towns along the rim of the Sunda Strait, between Java and Sumatra islands, triggered by a landslide on the Anak Krakatau volcano.

It is the latest in a string of natural disasters to strike Indonesia in 2018, making it the deadliest year in more than a decade.

"People said 'run, run a wave is coming!'. There were three waves in a row," said Yadi, a middle-aged fisherman who operates a fleet of six vessels that were among dozens that sank or were dragged out to sea by the waves.

"There was a real panic. Many people were left behind," he said, adding that he and his family escaped by running to higher ground.

What's left behind is a wasteland of collapsed houses and hotels and muddy roads strewn with twisted metal and wood.

Thousands of displaced and grieving residents were searching for missing loved ones on Monday and trying to salvage whatever they could of their belongings.

Heavy equipment was being used to help with the rescue effort. Medics were sent in with the military, while groups of police and soldiers searched remote areas.

Cici Paramita, 27, was clambering through the shattered remains of her house, a tangle of water-logged debris, 50 metres from the beach.

"We lost all our belongings," she said.

On Saturday night, she said she had to wade through waist-deep water to rescue her eight-year-old son who was trapped in debris.

Reuters