Hooded gunmen ambushed an armored car courier outside a bank in Hyattsville yesterday afternoon, fatally shooting the courier and grabbing a money bag before stealing a getaway car from a bystander, police and witnesses said.

The courier, a 28-year-old Maryland man, was shot three times shortly before 1 p.m. outside the front entrance of BB&T in the 3500 block of Hamilton Street. The bank is across the road from a busy grocery store and a nursery where about 30 children had just begun their afternoon nap.

The driver of the armored car saw the shooting, according to a police chaplain who prayed with him later. The driver rammed the armored car into the vehicle the gunmen were using, a Jeep Cherokee that was stolen July 9 in the District. Police said they believed there were two gunmen, and one witness said one of them ordered terrified customers outside the bank to turn over their car keys.

The customer, Beverly Sjoblad, said she and another woman fled through a rear exit of the bank when they heard gunfire out front -- only to be confronted outside by a hooded man with "a shotgun or some sort of rifle."

"He started to say, 'Give me your cars! Give me your keys!' " said Sjoblad, 56. The other woman "threw her keys at the gunmen, and I dropped to the ground and crawled under my car."

She added: "I can tell you I've never felt so close to death in my life."

Police said the robbers, with an undisclosed amount money, fled in the car belonging to the woman who threw the keys. It was a silver, four-door, 2000 Pontiac Grand Am with a rear spoiler and damage to the front driver's-side hubcap and Maryland license plate HYT 076.

Prince George's County police identified the slain guard as Jason L. Schwindler of Anne Arundel County. Police said he was shot twice in the torso and once in the face.

He was an employee of the Dunbar armored car company, which is based in Hunt Valley, Md. Citing security reasons, company officials declined to say whether he was wearing body armor.

"We're upset by the violence that was taken against our employee. Our sympathy goes out to his family," said Thomas Dolan, the company's vice president of security.

Lt. Steve Yuen of Prince George's County police said investigators know of no link between yesterday's heist and the series of recent bank robberies by heavily armed men in Maryland and the District. Those robberies also were committed in daylight by hooded assailants who used stolen vehicles.

D.C. police officials have said they are concerned about the possibility of copycat crimes after a group allegedly struck six banks in as many months in the Washington area. Police have eight of nine suspects in those robberies in custody.

In the past 10 years, at least nine other armored trucks or truck crews have been robbed in the metropolitan area, with shots fired in at least six of the holdups. Two of the robberies occurred in May and June of 2002. In 1994 and 1995, three armored car workers were killed in separate incidents.

The Rev. James M. Stack, a chaplain for Prince George's police, said the armored car driver with whom he prayed "stayed in the truck while the fellow went to run the money into the bank, and that's when they got him."

Stack said the gunmen shot the courier without first demanding that he turn over the money satchel. "They intended to kill him," Stack said.

The driver, he said, was "angry, distraught."

Jim Quisenberry, general manager of Jack and Jill Day Nursery, said the 30 children in his care yesterday afternoon had just lain down when he heard as many as 16 shots. Outside, he saw a Dunbar employee with his gun drawn first seeming to pursue a gunman and then returning to the front of the bank to comfort his wounded co-worker.

"He was trying to comfort him as much as he could," Quisenberry said. Referring to the slain courier, he said, "I don't know how they surprised him, but they sure as heck got him."

He said the children in his care did not stir. "It actually sounded like popcorn to them, I would imagine," he said. "I'm pretty sure they didn't even know what was going on."

Another man, Cohen Cosby, a lifeguard at a nearby swimming pool, said he was walking on Hamilton Street when he was startled by the gunfire.

"I looked up, and I saw one of the suspects shooting," he said. "They were shooting in the direction of the bank. I laid down for a few minutes until all the commotion was over. When I got up, I walked closer and I saw the guard laying on the ground. He was bleeding from the upper body and the abdomen."

Pastor G. Marie Livingston of Prayer, Praise and Power Church Without Walls was about to cross the street to deposit money for her congregants at BB&T when she heard the crackle of gunfire outside her home.

"I was getting my things together to go over to the bank. It was the grace of God that detained me," she said.

Teresa Wines-McLean owns Pauls Custom Cleaners, across the street from the bank. The community is one of the most diverse in the Washington area.

"This is a little too close," said Wines-McLean, who also heard the gunshots. "It's scary, especially when you own a small business." He said he heard "about seven or eight gunshots. I thought the guys next door were breaking up furniture."

Ed Warnick, 58, a resident in the neighborhood who banks at BB&T, said: "We heard the shots. I was working in my yard. Then about 10 minutes later, I heard all of the sirens. Not much happens like this around here. It's scary. I could have been in there."

Staff writers Michelle Boorstein, Jamie Stockwell, Del Quentin Wilber, Martin Weil and Clarence Williams contributed to this report.

Members of the police department examine a black Jeep Cherokee, with a bullet hole in the door, believed to have been the gunmen's first vehicle.