A former Lexington firefighter who played a role in the mission to bring home the first men to walk on the moon died Tuesday.
When Apollo 11 splashed into the Pacific Ocean on July 24, 1969, the eyes of the world watched as Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins made history.
But Max Hellmueller, a Navy sailor from Lexington, was operating the machine that pulled the crew from the ocean onto the aircraft carrier USS Hornet; he rarely spoke about his role in the historic mission.
Hellmueller, 68, was riding a motorcycle on U.S. 68-80 Tuesday when he collided with the blade of a construction grader that made a left turn into his path as Hellmueller tried to pass, said Barren County Coroner Mike Swift.
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He died at T.J. Samson Community Hospital at 11:37 a.m.
Hellmueller was a Lexington fire department captain, and even though he retired about 14 years ago, he was still active in the department and the community.
Battalion Chief Greg Bayer said that current firefighters who never worked with Hellmueller still knew his name.
"It's a fire department family," Bayer said. "Sometimes you go through hell at work and that forms a bond. We do things that you sometimes can't even relate to your spouses, so that solidifies the bond."
During about 29 years in the department, Hellmueller was respected and known as a commanding presence, Bayer said.
"I fought many a fire with him," Bayer said. "He was a brave firefighter and a well-educated firefighter."
Hellmueller had good relationships with people within other agencies.
"He would always give this gruff exterior, but he just had a big, kind heart," Lexington police Sgt. Scott May said. "He always looked out for everybody ... if push came to shove, he'd be there by your side."
After retirement, Hellmueller continued to raise money for charities and aided the Lexington Public Safety Museum that he helped start, Bayer said.
Hellmueller also volunteered with the Aviation Museum of Kentucky, helping with everything from restoring and moving planes to providing security for events.
"Max, he was just loved by all here," said David Riggins, museum president and chief operating officer. "We just always enjoyed having him here. His presence will definitely be missed."
Hellmueller had been the president of the USS Hornet Association this year, and he was set to head a meeting of 117 members of the group at the Aviation Museum on Sept. 12.
Hellmueller was also a member of the Brother's Keepers Motorcycle Club, which is made up entirely of active and retired firefighters.
"He loved his motorcycle and he loved the freedom of riding on a motorcycle," Bayer said.
He hadn't been as involved with the motorcycle club recently, though, in order to spend more time with his family, Bayer said.
Hellmueller was married to his wife, Barbara, for 46 years. They met in 1967 while Hellmueller was stationed as a military police officer at the Kodiak Naval Base in Alaska, according to a 2001 Herald-Leader story. Barbara had been living in the area since 1960 while her father, also in the Navy, was stationed there.
Hellmueller gave her a parking ticket so he could have a chance to meet her. They began dating soon after that and were married in August of 1969.
"It's unusual anymore to find such a strong marriage in this type of job," Bayer said. "Max had a great attitude; he balanced home life and work life."
He is also survived by sons Jason Allen and Jared Lee Hellmueller.
Hellmueller was an inspiration to fellow firefighters, Bayer said. "Max would want us to just keep getting on the truck when the bell rings and do a good job," Bayer said.
Visitation for Hellmueller will be from 4 to 8 p.m. Monday and his funeral will be at 2 p.m. Tuesday at Kerr Brothers at 463 East Main Street.