A collapsed spire to the severely damaged Christchurch Cathedral is nothing compared with the human cost of the earthquake, said Dean Peter Beck.

Staff frantically tried to evacuate the Canterbury landmark when the earthquake hit, but late yesterday afternoon Dean Beck still did not know if people were trapped inside.

As multiple fatalities were reported across the city and emergency services tried to establish if anyone was inside, the overriding feeling was of shock and coming to terms with "pretty awful consequences".

Canterbury people needed to be supporting and talking to each other, he said. Many knew the rest of the country's thoughts were with the city.

"The people are the most important priority. I'll be encouraging the clergy to be out there reaching out to people.

"We ask for prayers in particular for those who are in high states of distress. People are traumatised here. This is a major, major disaster - again - and what we have to do is reach out to one another and support the emergency services in any way we can."

Dean Beck said it was too early to say whether the cathedral, which was more than 100 years old, could be rebuilt.