A woman has died after the vehicle she was driving went off a cliff at a popular highway lookoff in Cape Breton and landed in the water below.

Investigators are still trying to determine how it happened and a community is deeply saddened by this tragedy, particularly so close to the holidays.

The incident occurred on the South Bar highway and the car fell nearly 20 metres into the water below.

Steve Hayes lives nearby and witnessed the recovery effort by first responders.

“I only can imagine how I'd feel if that happened,” Hayes said. “It's a shame, it's a crying shame.”

When fire crews arrived they found the vehicle submerged on its driver’s side in freezing cold water.

“It was roughly waist-deep in water,” said Cape Breton Regional Fire Chief Blair McIsaac.

“We realized there was a female in the vehicle, as well as a cat. One of our members took the cat from the vehicle, got it back to the shore. At that time, two other members arrived.  We made access by breaking out the back window of the vehicle.  And we moved the female through the back window.”

While the animal survived, the woman, believed to be in her late sixties or early seventies, was pronounced dead at the scene.

McIsaac and area residents say this is a popular place for people to park their vehicles and simply enjoy the view. It's not the first time a vehicle has gone over an embankment along this highway.

“We've had multiple calls of vehicles being over the bank before,” McIsaac said. “And usually, no one's inside when we arrive. It seemed like the vehicle went straight off the cliff. There was no attempt at braking - it seemed like it just went straight over the bank.”

Hayes says while he may not know the family of the person who died, his heart goes out to them.

“To lose your mum or your grandmother or your sister, that's heartbreaking,” said Hayes. “That's really heartbreaking.”

Cape Breton Regional police are investigating. The woman's name has not been released.

With files from CTV Atlantic’s Ryan MacDonald.