The national disaster agency put the official death toll –- based on reports from medical facilities in the tsunami-struck city of Palu –- at 48, but warned the toll was likely to rise.
In the city — home to around 350,000 people — partially covered bodies lay on the ground near the shore, the morning after tsunami waves 1.5 metres (five feet) high slammed into the city.
Hospitals were overwhelmed by the influx of injured, with many people being treated in the open air, while other survivors helped to retrieve the remains of those who died.
One man was seen carrying the muddy corpse of a small child.
The tsunami was triggered by a strong quake that brought down buildings and sent locals fleeing for higher ground as a churning wall of water crashed into Palu, where there were widespread power blackouts.
Giving its first official death toll, Indonesia’s national disaster agency said at least 48 people had been killed in Palu, while so far another 356 people had been injured.
It cautioned that there wold likely be many more deaths.
Dramatic video footage filmed from the top floor of a parking ramp in Palu, nearly 80 kilometres (50 miles) from the quake’s epicentre, showed waves of water bring down several buildings and inundate a large mosque.
“I just ran when I saw the waves hitting homes on the coastline,” said Palu resident Rusidanto, who like many Indonesians goes by one name.
The shallow 7.5 magnitude tremor was more powerful than a series of quakes that killed hundreds on the Indonesian island of Lombok in July and August.
Indonesian president Joko Widodo said the military was being called in to the disaster-struck region to help search-and-rescue teams get to victims and find bodies.
Earlier, the head of the country’s search and rescue agency Muhammad Syaugi told AFP that local staff had found “many” dead bodies.
People living hundreds of kilometres from the epicentre reported feeling the massive shake, which came hours after a smaller jolt killed at least one person in the same part of the country.
The quake hit just off central Sulawesi at a depth of 10 kilometres just before 1100 GMT — early evening in Sulawesi — the US Geological Survey said. Such shallow quakes tend to be more destructive.
Pictures supplied by the disaster agency showed a badly damaged shopping mall in Palu where at least one floor had collapsed onto the storey below, while other photographs showed major damage to buildings and large cracks across pavements.
The agency also said homes and a local hotel were flattened while a landmark city bridge was destroyed.
A key road into the settlement had been badly damaged and was blocked by landslides, the disaster agency said.
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