(CNN) -- Jose Maldonado was getting off the bus when the suspects exited the Stockton, California, bank with their hostages.
Police had already arrived at the Bank of the West, the witness told CNN affiliate KOVR-TV on Wednesday, but authorities couldn't take out the assailants, not with their guns trained on a customer and two bank employees.
"There was three guys, had three guns and three hostages, and they had the guns to the hostages' heads," Maldonado told the Sacramento station. "They were petrified. Their faces were white. They were just so scared."
Climbing into a sport utility vehicle belonging to a bank employee, the robbery suspects made one of the hostages drive. Police "surrounded the car, and they just couldn't shoot at them because they were so close to the hostages. They just drove right out of the parking lot," Maldonado said.
The security guard who called the police had been tied up inside the bank amid frightened patrons and tellers, authorities said.
As the suspects fled, a 12-year-old was left stranded in the parking lot after her mother, who had gone inside to withdraw money, became one of the three hostages. The girl texted her father saying, "They took mom," a man who identified himself as Devin J., one of the woman's cousins, told a local television station.
For the next hour, police would chase the SUV on surface streets and interstates through Lodi to Acampo, then 20 miles back to Stockton. Gunfire from a semiautomatic AK-47 and other weapons struck 14 of the 50 or so police cars that gave chase, police said.
What concerned Stockton Police Chief Eric Jones most was the perpetrators' recklessness and wanton violence, he said. Two female hostages either jumped or were thrown from the vehicle -- one shot, one grazed -- and the third victim, the mother whose daughter was left in the car, was apparently killed as the suspected robbers used her as a human shield.
The other two hostages are expected to survive, Jones said.
Asked why police opened fire on the men when they still held a woman a hostage, police spokesman Joseph Silva told reporters, "There was a fear for safety, not only for our officers, but also for the community."
The men were armed to the teeth, the chief said, and appeared to be out for blood.
"The suspects had mass amounts of ammunition, either taped to or strapped to their bodies. The gunfire on our officers was relentless," he said.
Not only did they hit homes and cars on busy streets with their bullets, but they once lost police, Jones said. Rather than pressing the pedal to the floor, putting distance between them and the dozens of officers tracking them, they stopped to set up an ambush, he said.
"They briefly lost officers and then stopped off of the roadway off-ramp and turned and had their weapons aimed at the officers who were soon to make the turn looking for them," he said.
Fortunately, an officer saw them setting up their trap and fired on a gunman leaning over the back of the SUV, sparking another pursuit, Jones said.
"That officer likely thwarted a deadly ambush," he said.
Witnesses abound. Some saw one of the hostages lying in the street. Others saw officers in hot pursuit through California streets and highways. Many heard the violent gunbattle that brought the deadly chase to its end.
"It sounded like firecrackers at first," one witness told CNN affiliate KCRA-TV.
Another told the station, "I could see the car getting blasted. I could see all the little sparks and everything off the car."
Amateur video obtained by CNN affiliate KOVR shows the final moments. It sounds as if someone set off a long string of firecrackers as puffs of smoke rise from the blue SUV facing off with police cars. Then the gunfire stops, and the only sound on the video is the wail of police sirens.
"It sounded like five minutes of straight gunfire," Sam York told KCRA. "It seemed like it wasn't real."
One of the suspects had been killed, police said. Another was injured and would die later at a local hospital. Neither has been identified, but one was 27, the other 30, police said.
The surviving suspect, Jaime Ramos, 19, of Stockton was wrapped in a yellow blanket and escorted to a police car, where he was taken to San Joaquin County Jail and booked on felony murder, kidnapping and robbery charges. He is expected to make a court appearance Monday.
Many questions remain, namely whether police or the suspects killed the woman found inside the assailants' SUV, but Jones told the media it could take "some time" to answer that particular question. His officers, along with state and federal authorities, were investigating every angle, he assured reporters.
No matter what they learn, Jones said, one thing is certain: Authorities did not want the situation to end the way it did.
"They put our entire community and nearby communities at risk for a very long time," he said. "We obviously hoped for a peaceful resolution, but these assailants wanted no part of a peaceful resolution."