It was nearly 30 years ago in south central Missouri, where a mother and her child were killed in a car accident.
"I was walking and could see a coat on the pavement," McNiell recalled about arriving at the scene. "I was going to step over it and the coroner said, 'Jim, watch that coat. There's a body underneath.' Then I saw a cowboy boot on the pavement."
The boy killed was only 2 years old -- and at the time, the same age as McNiell's son.
"That's where it hits you," said McNiell, who was assigned to Southeast Missouri's Troop E in 1992.
McNiell has since grown accustomed to working traffic fatalities, and like other duties, it has become a part of his job as a patrol officer. Throughout the years, officers with the Missouri State Highway Patrol have experienced many firsts, losses, changes and challenges while serving and protecting citizens.
Next month marks the 75th anniversary of the establishment of the Missouri State Highway Patrol, which Gov. Henry S. Caulfield signed into effect on April 24, 1931.
Each troop headquarters is planning to hold in-house celebrations; Troop E has not yet scheduled a celebration.
When it began, the Patrol was divided into six troops instead of the nine it is today. Southeast's Missouri's Troop E was one of the original troops and headquartered at the highway department building in Sikeston.
"Each officer was issued a Smith and Wesson .38-caliber revolver and began patrolling on Nov. 24, 1931," said Sgt. Dale Moreland, public information officer for Troop E.
Patrol cars were not radio-equipped at the time so messages were phoned out from headquarters in Jefferson City to contact points at different locations such as restaurants and grocery stores within a troop, Moreland said. One of the contact points in Troop E was Cox Grocery in Dexter, he recalled.
"Headquarters would call every day or two with assignments and officers would stop at a contact point and get their information," Moreland said.
In 1938, Troop E's headquarters moved from Sikeston to a building located on Highway 67 south of Poplar Bluff. Then in 1975, it moved three miles north of Poplar Bluff, still on Highway 67, where it's presently located. Today Troop E also has a satellite center in Sikeston.
Fourteen troopers covered Troop E's 16-county area when it originated. Today Troop E has 89 uniformed officers, 61 uniformed civilian officers and 72 division employees to cover the 13-county service area, which still includes Scott, New Madrid, Mississippi and Stoddard counties.
One of the biggest changes since he joined the Patrol in 1979 is the radios, Moreland said.
"The radios in cars were transistor-type radios and the trunk unit was monstrous. Today they're all real small, compact units. Back then patrol cars had AM radios only and now they have FM, too. They still don't put cassettes or CD players in them though," Moreland said.
The Patrol is always looking for ways to stay updated with technology, McNiell noted.
"We have MCDs, or mobile computer devices, in the patrol cars. Anything they want to know about person, they can find out right then," McNiell said.
Over the years the Patrol has also become more diversified, Moreland said. "In any type of situation, we can request help with homicides, burglaries or any type of death investigation," Moreland said. "Unfortunately, we do investigations on other departments when asked to. We do undercover narcotics as well."
Another area the Patrol has improved in is its ability to investigate accidents, McNiell said.
"We have reconstructionists in the field and further investigations can be done by crash teams," McNiell said.
Officers use surveying equipment and are able to map accident scenes through scientific formulas to determine speeds of vehicles at the time of an accident.
"It's so much more advanced than before. Now we can prove how quick drivers in crashes were going, and it can stand up in court," McNiell said. "... With our jobs, we are making a difference out there, and that's what's rewarding."
Over the years, the Patrol has also been utilized during natural disasters, such as the floods of 1993 and hazardous winter weather conditions. And living on the New Madrid Fault has prompted them to be prepared for earthquakes, too, McNiell said.
"From the personal side, we've lost people we work with, and that's been tough," McNiell said.
Since 1999 four Troop E officers have been killed in the line of duty. Statewide the Patrol has lost 27 officers since it began 75 years ago. In 2005, four officers were killed statewide -- it's deadliest year yet.
There's a lot of inherited dangers with the job, McNiell admitted. "There's a higher volume of traffic than there used to be and more drugs on the highway. We don't know what we're dealing with when approaching a car, and makes it more dangerous," Moreland agreed.
Although the Patrol and its officers have dealt with various changes and challenges over the years, Moreland said the Patrol's original purpose -- to enforce traffic laws and promote safety on the highway -- has virtually remained unchanged.
McNiell agreed the Patrol has been and will always be about service and protection.
"We're trying to protect those traveling on highways and promoting safety any way we can," McNiell said. "The service is not only to enforce traffic laws, but to help those who've broken down on the highways and are involved in accidents. That's been our service from day No. 1."