The table was piled with clams, the eager competitive eaters were ready and the crowd was warned to stand back.
Then came the gluttonous spectacle of thousands of the raw mollusks being consumed at breakneck speed at the third annual clam-eating contest in Island Park.
Before the contest began at Peter’s Clam Bar, which sponsors the competition, last year’s champion Peter Adams, said he was ready to extend his reign.
“Gotta defend the crown, if it doesn’t kill me,” said Adams, a retired New York City policeman who has been a volunteer firefighter since 1982.
“The trick is to eat the shell . . . just kidding,” he said with a laugh. His actual technique was to load up a fork with as many clams as would fit at a time and then gulp.
Butch Yamali, president of the Freeport-based Dover Group, which owns the restaurant, said the contest was to raise funds for local fire departments that lost equipment in superstorm Sandy. The top three firefighter clam eaters won prizes of $2,500, $1,000 and $500 for their departments. The prizes are donated by the restaurant. The additional money collected at the event, $2,980, was divided among the 10 fire departments that participated.
There were three four-minute heats for the clam-eating firefighters and the top two from each round went onto the final two-minute matchup.
Hempstead Fire Department Chief Charles Hendry and Augie DeRiggi of the North Lindenhurst Fire Department were the top contenders in their heat. Hendry, 44, of Hempstead who is a lieutenant in the New York City Fire Department, ultimately prevailed and won the contest having eaten 144 clams in six minutes.
“I think I’ve had enough clams for the week,” he said afterward. His technique? “Just swallow them whole.” A cheering section from his fire department helped. Adams came in second with DeRiggi taking third out of about 20 firefighter contestants.
The serious action was in the public contest which followed the firefighters.
David Brunelli, 40, from Philadelphia, donned a pair of yellow-and-black gloves to hold the clams and his fork, and 300 clams later he had won $1,000.
At the end of the first round, Brunelli, who said he is a competitive eater and a bartender, said, “I feel like I’ve got plenty of room.”
Looking a little sluggish afterward, he simply said he felt “good.”
“He’s not human,” said Peter Greco, a construction worker from West Islip who competed with Brunelli in the final.
Brunelli fell 13 clams short of beating the contest’s record.