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It wasn’t John Sensiba’s best day.
The Pleasanton resident was inside a San Francisco cathedral on Nov. 8, 2018, eulogizing one of his business partners, who died of cancer. When he turned his phone back on afterward, he realized his day wasn’t over.
“My phone blew up,” Sensiba said.
About 170 miles to the northeast, a faulty transmission wire on a blustery day in rural Butte County ignited the deadliest wildfire in California history. The Camp Fire was incinerating the town of Paradise, eventually killing 85 people and destroying more than 18,000 structures.
“Friends had been calling and saying Paradise was on fire and asking about Chuck,” Sensiba said. “They wanted to know if he was OK.”
Chuck is Chuck Piazza, the 95-year-old “second father” to Sensiba and his wife, Marianne.
Sensiba couldn’t reach Chuck until the next day, and it turned out Piazza’s home had burned in the fire.
But today, after living with Sensiba and his wife for months following the fire, Piazza is back in a rebuilt home. And in the latest twist in a friendship that spans almost 50 years, Sensiba treks from Pleasanton to Paradise every couple of weeks to help with things like hiring landscapers.
“I love the guy; he and his wife were like second parents to us,” Sensiba said.
The relationship began in 1976 when Sensiba’s parents moved with their five children into a San Carlos home they bought from Chuck Piazza and his wife Skip, who were moving to Paradise.
A decade later, the Piazzas were selling a rental property in Belmont and learned that John Sensiba, now grown, was getting married and wanted a home but couldn’t afford to buy one. The Piazzas — with no children of their own — lent John and his new wife Marianne the $175,000 they needed to buy the Belmont house, extending the loan out 40 years with no down payment.
“It was just such a gift to us,” Sensiba said. “Being able to buy that house did so much for my confidence — who knows what that did for me and my career?”
As Sensiba’s family grew, so did the connection with the Piazzas. They exchanged holiday cards and gifts, and the family regularly vacationed near Paradise and visited the couple.
The Sensibas moved to Pleasanton in 1993 but kept paying the Piazzas, who by then had money issues of their own.
“It got paid off and Chuck was still around and had to live, so I didn’t tell him we paid off the house,” Sensiba said. “What a gift it was for us to be able to pay back someone who did something so nice for us.”
Skip died, and Piazza — a retired toolmaker who had served under General George Patton in Europe during World War II — kept the house in Paradise, where Sensiba visited once a month to help with upkeep.
“Just the sweetest man,” said Marianne Sensiba. “He loves our family; he’s a part of our family. I feel like they kind of adopted us … we started to have our own kids and they became like their grandparents.”
Piazza declined to talk for this story, because he didn’t understand why anyone would think he was worth reading about.
“That’s the stubbornness talking,” Marianne said.
Piazza did briefly speak with People magazine in 2018 about the fire, telling the magazine:
“I got up like every other morning when my neighbor called and said, ‘You have five minutes to leave the house.’ I panicked. I grabbed what I thought I would need; thank God I didn’t have any pets, but the power was off so I couldn’t get my garage door opened.”
The neighbor broke a window and got the car out of the garage. The usual 20-minute drive to Chico took Piazza nearly eight hours through the chaos, Sensiba said.
“I drove up there; I had to go around some CHP roadblocks and drive through some fields — and found him at a shelter in Chico,” Sensiba said. “I brought him home and he lived with us for about six months.”
Piazza escaped the fire with a pair of harmonicas, an electric razor, and an old file box. His garage was basically a machine shop, with “some really cool stuff,” Sensiba said, but that’s all gone — though Sensiba was able to reproduce some old photos Piazza lost and give them to him last Christmas.
He said it’s been a tough transition, but things are trending upward for his friend.
“It was a hard couple years for him,” Sensiba said. “It’s just now getting better.”