Two armed bandits took four hostages Friday in a bank robbery attempt, shut them in a closet and then vanished before a heavily armed SWAT team stormed the building through a cloud of tear gas.

The four hostages, all employees of the busy West End branch of the Third National Bank, looked out after 31/2 hours in their closet "prison," did not see the bandits and walked unharmed out a side door.A swarm of people who watched the drama at the busy midtown bank from a block away cheered as the four employees emerged.

Thinking the bandits still in the bank, masked SWAT team members, wearing bulletproof vests and armed with automatic weapons, lobbed tear gas cannisters inside the bank less than 30 minutes later.

"They escaped before police got here," a police spokeswoman said.